Our two readings sum up rather well our human condition when it comes to this month’s theme of identity and belonging. Each of us is unique, and yet we are connected. All of us long to belong, and yet we all too often find ourselves feeling disconnected and lonely.
Brene Brown begins her book, Braving the Wilderness, which is subtitled The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by talking about her own longing to belong as a child. She grew up in Texas in a community where although the schools were desegregated, black people and white people still lived very segregated lives. She says she never really felt comfortable with the other white families. But although her best friend was an African American girl, she never felt totally accepted by the black families either.
She also grew up as an Episcopalian in an area where most people practiced Catholicism. And by the time she got to high school, she wanted more than anything to belong, and thought she would try out for a spot on the school drill team. But she didn’t get chosen because she didn’t dress and look like all the other girls with their makeup and fancy hair styles and shiny outfits.
Those early years – and that persistent feeling of not belonging – shaped her, and she’s been wrestling, both personally and professionally, with the question of what it means to belong ever since.
What she has learned from her research is that people “want to be part of something – to experience real connection with others – but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power,” (33). In other words, they don’t simply want to “fit in.” They want to truly belong.
Belonging [she says] is being accepted for [who] you [are]. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else… If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit it. (160)
She also says that “because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance,” (32).
In other words, if we will not share our true selves with others because we don’t like our true selves, then we will have difficulty feeling like we truly belong even among people who would accept us for who we are.
Being our true selves, presenting our “authentic, imperfect selves” to others, takes a good deal of courage – sometimes an extraordinary amount. For it means being able “to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism. And with the world feeling [as she says] like a political and ideological combat zone, this is remarkably tough,” (32).
In an attempt to feel safer and more comfortable, we’ve sorted ourselves more and more into communities of like-minded people. Bill Bishop wrote a book about this in 2009 called The Big Sort. And, as Brene Brown notes, the sorting has gotten even worse since the 2016 election.
So here’s the big question [according to Brown]: Wouldn’t you think that all of the sorting by politics and beliefs we’ve been doing would lead to more social interaction? If we’ve hunkered down ideologically and geographically with people who we perceive to be just like us, doesn’t that mean that we’ve surrounded ourselves with friends and people with whom we feel deeply connected? … The answer to these questions is a resounding and surprising no. At the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness. (51)
The percentage of Americans who report being “lonely” has more than doubled in the last 40 years.
Clearly, selecting like-minded friends and neighbors and separating ourselves as much as possible from people whom we think of as different from us has not delivered that deep sense of belonging that we are hardwired to crave. (51)
People today report feeling more afraid to be themselves, to share their opinions, “to disagree or debate with friends, colleagues, and family because of the lack of civility and tolerance,” (33). And that’s understandable, I think, given the current tone of our societal discourse.
As Brown says,
If we zoom way out and take a wide-angle shot of our world that’s increasingly defined by twenty-four-hour news, politics, and social media, we see a lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations. We see politicians making laws that their own resources will exempt them from having to follow, and behaving in ways that would cost most of us our jobs, our families, and our dignity. (64)
All of that was on display this past week. I won’t presume to know how you felt, but it was a tough week emotionally for me. Between Tuesday’s State of the Union Address and Wednesday’s Impeachment acquittal in the Senate, I found myself feeling extremely angry, frustrated, and afraid.
At one point I said to my 6th grade daughter, “I know I’m cursing a lot this week, but you’re old enough to know not to repeat what I’m saying, right?”
“Right,” she said.
“Besides,” I said, “just remember that every time I say ‘Jesus Christ’ I’m really praying.” My wife just laughed.
Early on Thursday morning, before anyone else in my house was yet awake, I was reading from the Book of Psalms while drinking my first cup of coffee. And the passages for that morning included this from Psalm 69:
Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs on my head; my lying foes who would destroy me are mighty.
And from Psalm 35:
Do not let my treacherous foes rejoice over me, nor let those who hate me without a cause wink at each other.
In that moment, I realized that behind all of my anger and frustration and fear was this deep sense of not belonging, of being “othered” by a bunch of people who don’t even know me, but who hate me “without a cause” and who would do me harm because I’m a liberal, because I’m a lesbian, because I’m a woman. The feeling I had in that moment was like the feeling of being in Junior High School and being othered by a bunch of bullies. And in that moment I wondered, “Is that how people on the other side of the proverbial aisle feel about me? That I’m judging them and othering them? That I hate them without a cause? What a terrible feeling that is!
James Baldwin once said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Later that morning, the morning after the Senate acquittal, the National Prayer Breakfast took place in Washington, DC. The keynote speaker talked about the importance of loving our enemies. He asked those present to raise their hands if they loved someone with whom they disagreed politically.
The President, notably, did not raise his hand. And in response, when it was his turn to speak, he said he wasn’t so sure about loving one’s enemies. He then went on to condemn those by whom he felt persecuted. And the following day, Friday, he began to dismiss some of them from their posts.
In her book about belonging, Brene Brown writes about dehumanization.
“Dehumanization is a process… ‘the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.’ Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy. Once we see people on “the other side” of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil.” (72)
[It often begins with seemingly insignificant, petty name-calling. But as Brown notes…]
“Dehumanization has fueled innumerable acts of violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocides. It makes slavery, torture, and human trafficking possible.” (72)
Of course, we’re seeing more and more of this. And it’s frightening. And make no mistake, it is a strategy being used very intentionally to divide us. It has often been a strategy used by those in power who want to gain and maintain their power. It is both at the root of and fans the flames of the racism and genocide and xenophobia that are part of our nation’s history.
Dehumanization also makes us even more afraid to share our true selves. It makes us more tempted than ever to conform and to fit in. And one of the ways we do that when we get together with like-minded people, is to succumb to the temptation to talk about those with whom we disagree or by whom we feel persecuted. Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy,” and says it is “counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging,” (136).
If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that can leave us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. Did I really participate in that? Is that moving us forward? Am I engaging in, quite literally, the exact same behavior that I find loathsome in others? (136)
What we really need to begin doing to counter the rampant and intentional dehumanization is to engage in behaviors that rehumanize. We need to call out dehumanization when we witness it. And we need to refuse to engage in it ourselves. As Brown says,
When the president of the United States calls women dogs…we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins. When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman. (75)
I am reminded of a little poem by Edwin Markham, which has often been quoted by Universalists and which you may have heard:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”
And that, in turn, points to some concrete advice from Brene Brown that will challenge us and move us closer to truly belonging: “People are hard to hate close up,” she says. “Move in.”
If we stay zoomed out, we hear a lot of messages. ‘Republicans are all selfish jerks.’ ‘Democrats are all losers.’ But if we zoom in – when we actually engage in relationship – we see that are real people with real-life concerns. We love our kids. We want the best for them. We experience joy. We grieve our dead. We experience pain. We suffer. Zoom in.
In order to do that, we have to practice being both curious and generous in our assumptions about why people are the people they are and why they believe the things they believe. We have to move in, to get past our own stereotypes and bias.
When you find yourself generalizing about any group of people…pro-lifers, gun-owners, police officers, conservative evangelical Christians, Trump voters, Bernie supporters, Boot-edge-edge fans, Warren loyalists…move in. Resist the urge to judge. Instead, practice curiosity.
Our congregations are excellent places to practice this discipline. The more we can let go of our assumptions about one another, and the more we can reveal and celebrate our differences, the stronger we’ll become as a community and the more likely we are to feel like we truly belong.
As Brown says,
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging [unlike fitting in] doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (40)
This is church at it’s very best. It is the place where we come together each week to be reminded that we are part of something bigger, part of what John O’Donohue calls the Great Belonging, and also to develop the courage to stand alone, to be and to share our most authentic selves.
True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments. (37)
These are things we can and should practice here, but ultimately, we are called to take what we learn and live it the world outside of these walls. According to Brown,
We’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up, join, and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness. (37)
I close with the words of Jean Rickard, who said of Unitarian Universalists,
We have a calling in this world:
We are called to honor diversity,
To respect differences with dignity,
And to challenge those who would forbid it.
We are people of a wide path.
Let us be wide in affection
And go our way in peace.