Inner Rings & Belonging

Crossing the Line

We all know what it feels like. The stomach-knotting knowledge that we weren’t invited, that we don’t belong. Our first memories of being left out usually come early in life and can be as simple as not being invited to a birthday party or as complicated as becoming a part of a blended family, where suddenly we realize the family we thought we belonged to no longer exists.

Just as a yellow police line blocks off a crime scene, only allowing those with authority inside, there is a line and we are not allowed inside that line. 

Belonging. Just saying the word can cause pain in many. What is belonging in all its complexity? What is belonging when you are of a third culture? If you live between worlds, do you belong in no man’s land — that strange, twilight space of ‘not there yet’?

Or how about when you are considered ‘half’ like ‘half’ Asian or ‘half’ black? Do you belong to one half or the other? Are you half of a whole? Will you ever be considered more than half?

In his book, The Weight of Glory, CS Lewis takes a profound look at belonging, more specifically at our desire as humans to belong in a chapter based on a lecture he gave called “The Inner Ring“.  

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” C.S.Lewis

The Inner Ring is that elusive place of belonging that is just beyond our reach, just past our grasp. Because once we have reached that inner ring and we begin to settle, we think we’ve finally found a place to belong, what it feels like, looks likewe realize there is a ring beyond that — and once we’ve gotten to that ring, there’s a ring beyond that still.

In elementary school that inner ring is the group of girls that excludes us. They are a part of Something Special and we don’t belong. It’s that group in middle school that get together every Friday night and we’re not invited, that group in high school that bears the name and reputation ‘cool’ and we do not know cool, no matter how hard we try. And though we’d like it to stop there, it often continues. It’s college, then young adult, then work and getting into that inner, secure, exclusive place. It’s church and those people who are in that inner circle, the circle that seems so Godly and confident, the one that we wish we belonged to. And yet when we get close, there’s something beyond, just out of our grasp.

We constantly look to that place of belonging that seems so secure, that tells us we have ‘arrived, yet it continually eludes us.

This has been a deep struggle at different periods in my life. At times I have faced tremendous insecurity around ‘belonging’. I have had points where I have desperately tried to get to that inner ring, that place where I fully belong, where there are no voices telling me I’m not really a part of the group. I’ve had other times where I think I have arrived at that inner place of belonging only to realize there is something missing — there’s another ring to pass through.

This inner ring can be in any area of life…whether it’s around nationality, or academics, or status, or church. We are not born understanding these rings or how to get into them.

At the beginning of the essay, Lewis poses this question: “I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.”

To be a part of that inner ring often means acting or speaking in ways that we end up regretting, we forget who we are, we lose our way, all in the quest to get to the inner ring. Sometimes getting to the inner ring involves giving up our integrity, our honesty, and pretending we are someone who we aren’t.

Lewis’ response to this dilemma of the “Inner Ring” is to break the cycle. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we will find ourselves still perhaps on the outside, but no longer will this be a burden, no longer will we wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it inside. Instead we will find our place, sometimes in the most unlikely of circles.

Counter intuitive as it seems, this has been my story. When I finally stopped grasping at success, at confidence, at belonging, I inexplicably found it. It is hard to articulate on paper, even more difficult in person. All I know is that somehow that quest that felt like a burden on my back since boarding school days of popular groups and cliques, has slowly but steadily been broken. In some mysterious way, I belong.

All of this is reminiscent to me of the words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”  Indeed CS Lewis speaks to this as well:

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

What about you? Where has the quest to be in the Inner Ring consumed you? Or have you found that the cycle has broken? 

Belong330This post is linked up to SheLoves Magazine through their February theme “Belonging”. Click here or on the picture to see posts from other writers or to add your own.

Image credit: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Coffee or Quarters?

It’s Boston hot.* With high humidity even mid-eighties feels uncomfortable. As it goes to the high eighties you’re dripping.

Give me the dry heat of Phoenix and 122 degrees any day. Really.

With the beginning of summer the visible homeless population has increased ten-fold. On my three-minute walk from subway to office I pass by 12 homeless people in varying stage of wakefulness. Some groggy eyed; others loud, ushering in the morning light with raucous interactions helped along by the strong smell of marijuana; three of them curled up, asleep in the doorways of nearby businesses.

It’s never easy. I don’t know much about the homeless, but I do know that there’s nothing simple about it. I do know that the issue is multifactoral and my response is shaped by the complexity of the issue.

quarterI’ve discovered something in the past couple of years as I daily see the faces and slowly learn names of some of the homeless in this area. I’ve discovered that giving quarters doesn’t work well for me. Because a quarter is too easy.

What’s hard is stopping and offering coffee.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” That’s hard for me.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” means a couple of things. It means I’ll get to work later than I wanted. It means I may have the inconvenience of waiting in a line. It means I need to pay attention as I ask what kind of coffee — Cream? Sugar? Hot? Iced? It means they become a person. It means I have to engage the humanity of the person.

And a person is much harder to ignore than a body.

A body is just a body. But a person has a name, likes, dislikes, a personality shaped by life and their response to life, a temper, a mouth, language and more.

A person challenges me to see through the eyes of God, something that isn’t easy. A person is my equal. When I begin to see someone as a person, not a body, not a statistic, I move into uncomfortable and necessary relationship. It forces me to face my prejudice and privilege.

Seeing someone as a person reminds me that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

So offering coffee is my new response. I don’t always offer it, and even when I offer it, it’s not always accepted. But overall, “No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” is teaching me far more than giving out quarters ever could. 

What do you think? How do you, or would you, respond? 

*I qualify heat by describing it as Boston hot as opposed to Djibouti hot which I’m learning defies imagination.