Where Do We Belong?

JONATHAN CARROLL | OPINION COLUMNIST

A sense of belonging is commonly cited as one of the, if not the, singular most important aims in life. Whether it be within one’s family or friend group, team or troupe, we as humans tend to want to belong. However, I cannot overlook the fact that the language we use is that of a SENSE of belonging and thus does not necessarily represent actual belonging. The question then becomes, if we only ever seem to be able to find a sense of belonging, where DO we belong?

Nationality is one possibility for a sense of belonging; we may be said to belong to the place where we were born. To broaden the scope of this meaning, we may even say that recent immigrations and emigrations also permit a sense of nationality and thus too of belonging. If we would commit ourselves to a certain place, though, then this sense of belonging may fail us. If we remain in one spot– a single town, perhaps– our entire lives, then we have no trouble belonging there. If, however, we do emigrate to another place, then we are faced with two places where we belong, and, barring bi-location, this scenario quite obviously presents a problem to us. We may recant on our allowance for immigrants, but I do not believe that this solves our problem, leading us to say that refugees fleeing from some strife should not actually leave because they belong in their home country. Belonging, then, seems as though it must not be tied to a location.

What, then, of belonging to a culture? If I were to say that I belong to such-and-such a culture as the one I was born into, I may carry it with me, and I may assimilate another culture, thus seeming to solve the issues which we faced in our consideration of belonging to a place. In this way, so long as I have some culture, then I do find that I belong. I must question this approach as well, though, as a culture is a very broad term. As stated, I may belong to several cultures and carry them each with me, so the multiplicity is not the issue here. Instead, it seems to me that perhaps a culture is too ambiguous to truly belong to. Upon surveying the next 10 people I should see on what it means to be American, or any culture which I see myself “belonging” to, I may very well expect ten distinct answers. Thus, in saying that I’m American, I’m not really offering any meaningful information, and, accordingly, I have a difficult time understanding how I should belong to this amorphous concept. I may attempt to clearly outline what each of my cultures means to me, and thus grant them some rigidity in that sense, but the problem then becomes whether anyone shares that culture with me, and, if not, then what sense of belonging am I left with? This seems to be a step in the right direction, but I am still unsatisfied.

Perhaps my search has taken me too far from its target. Referring back to that sense of belonging granted by a group of people, perhaps it is most correct to say that we, as people, belong to other people. Here we are granted mobility, multiplicity AND definitude. A concern might arise from a notion too close to enslavement with the language of belonging to another person, but I believe that the institution of marriage should serve to illustrate that belonging to another is not in and of itself terrible. With this approach, we are granted a web of belonging, such that we may safely make new strands to venture out upon while always remaining tethered to old ones and thus perpetually belonging. Humans are notoriously social creatures, which I hope should go to further support my point that to whom we belong is most defined by others in our lives. This point may resonate especially with those who are continuing their lives’ journeys traveling down potentially unfamiliar and uncomfortable roads, knowing that, all the while, you do and will belong in both the people you already have and the new ones you’ll meet along the way.

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