As I made the horrifying transition into puberty, marked by the beginning of middle school, my family both moved from Germany to Washington state and fell apart, as after years of struggle my parents decided to get a divorce. The Army was reassigning my dad to California, so this meant he’d be largely absent, as my mom, sister, and I moved in with my grandparents. Like often happens in middle school, a group of boys soon began bullying me. I share all this to simply say (while emphasizing EVERYONE was doing the best they could) that as I look back at one of the most crucial times in life, I just realized I truly belonged NOWHERE. Ouch! I point this out because, as a defense mechanism (highly encouraged by our society), I took to competing with and comparing myself to others. If I couldn’t belong with them, then I sure as heck was going to be better than them!
I have many fond memories of my grandparents and living in their home, and I feel they loved me well. The thing is, though, by the time we moved in, they’d been done with parenting and dealing with kids on a regular basis for YEARS. Not only were we a disruption to their life, they were of a different, more reserved, less warm generation and time. What I’m saying is that if we could go back in time and ask them if I belonged at their house and in their family, I’d bet they’d say “yes”. And they’d be 100% right from their perspective. STILL, in retrospect it now seems to me that at a deep level I felt like an outsider. This feeling of NOT belonging was amplified by my having to change a fair amount of my routines, chores, privileges, verbiage, eating habits, and so on to suit their lifestyle. It was as if in order to be “in” I had to change who I was, I couldn’t be me.
An example of this that stands out strongest to me had to do with my friends. As a pretty normal middle school kid, ALL I wanted to do after school and on the weekends was play and hang with my friends, while having overnighters as often as possible. Yet, understandably my grandparents weren’t too keen on having more youngsters invading their peaceful space. This meant I rarely got to have friends over to “my” place and virtually never got to host an overnighter. Please note, I totally get my grandparents’ perspective, think they did a great job, and am very grateful we got to stay with them.
While family and “home” is the primary place we seek belonging as kids, school is not far behind. I still have images in my head from my first day in middle school: I was at a brand new school, in a brand new situation, and didn’t know anyone. I felt terrifingly alone. It didn’t take all that long to find friends, though. In short, I had my people, the buddies I regularly spent time with. We had a blast playing with G.I. Joes and Transformers, a great time shooting hoops, a joy playing whiffle ball, and wracked up many late nights playing Nintendo.
ONLY, once the bullying started, my good “friends” would ALWAYS fade away and leave the scene. As I remember it, my peeps literally NEVER stood by my side while I was being made fun of, picked on, pushed, teased, and tormented, which meant at a deep level I felt like an outsider both at home and school. Not belonging with family or friends meant I didn’t belong ANYWHERE.
As I look back on and try and make sense of this some thirty years later, it seems to me this sense of not belonging, of being excluded, led me to define myself in opposition to others. Since I wasn’t “in”, I decided to “win”. Without a tribe that loved me and embraced me exactly as I was, I used competing and comparing to define my identity and sense of self-worth. While my journey of getting to a competing and comparing mentality is my own, I don’t think this mindset is all that unique. America, at least, is based on competition and comparison.
I was listening to a podcast interview of an Australian who has lived in America for number of years now and he observed there’s a MASSIVE difference between the words and phrases Americans use to describe success, and those of Australians and pretty much everyone else. Imagine you just started a new business and things are going really well. In Australia words and phrases like “it’s going great”, “you’re a success”, “you’re doing brilliantly,” and such would be the normal. In the U.S., however, we commonly say things like “you’re crushing it”, “I’m killing it”, “you’re destroying it,” “I’m winning”, and so on. Do you see the difference?
In the U.S. we are hard-wired to compete and compare, which means we define success and even belonging by doing more, being better, having a larger amount of money, knowing more, looking better, etc. than others. Belonging is a fundamental human need and desire. We long and yearn to be included, accepted, and embraced. Yet, in America we commonly define a good life as “keeping up with the Joneses”, which means the point of it all is to do “better” than others, which by definition puts them “outside” and you “in”.
Feeling like you don’t belong SUCKS! And basing one’s belonging and value on how we do in relation to others is a recipe for disaster on all sides, because there is ALWAYS someone with more, better, bigger, etc. Plus, it places the people we do “beat” on the outside. Vying with and rivaling others sucks our souls because it inevitably results in nothing but losers, who don’t belong and are on the outside looking in, because no one can win forever. YET, I’m learning there’s a different, and I think, better way. It’s celebrating everyone and cheering on his or her successes like it’s their wedding day.
(Here’s my wife Lisa and I celebrating at our wedding last year 🙂
I’m finding shifting from a mentality of competing and comparing to one of including and celebrating to be a total game changer; it’s WINNING for EVERYONE. I liken this to a wedding because generally at weddings all we’re doing is cheering on and celebrating the couple in all sorts of ways. Think about it, at weddings we don’t compare and get upset because the bride or bridegroom looks better than us, NO we celebrate that! His/her looking amazing doesn’t mean we look bad, there’s amazingness enough for EVERYONE.
I teach yoga, so a couple of ways I’m trying to practice this are when it comes to poses and class sizes. There’s poses some of my yogi friends can totally rock that I’d love to do but can’t. When I compete and compare, I feel like a failure that doesn’t belong because I can’t do the cool things she/he can. Likewise, when other teachers have more students in her/his class than I did in mine, playing the comparison game just leads to sadness and feeling like I don’t belong on my part. HOWEVER, when I instead choose to cheer on my yoga friends for being superstars without trying to “win”, my spirit becomes richer with joy, peace, and love. I think that’s because the deepest part of each of us, our souls, come to life whenever we choose love, as we’re made by a loving Parent to love and be loved. Love is the point of it all, so it makes sense that at the center of our beings we each know we’re loved as we are, have love to give, and belong wherever we are. In my experience, choosing to celebrate, instead of compete, helps tap into this quiet, centered place of radical belonging and acceptance.
While there’s much more to be said I think I’ll wrap it up with this: We each carry our belonging with us at the center of our beings, meaning we really and truly belong everywhere and with everyone. No one can take that away from us, it’s our birthright, we just have to remember it and remind one another. We are each beautiful, unique masterpieces of a divine Creator, whose souls shine as bright as the sun and are worth celebrating ALL the time. I leave you with these words from Maya Angelou: “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
Grace and peace,