I can name that tune in two notes.
It doesn’t take any notes, really – just those two words will work just fine to cue the Pat Benatar song in my head. I wanted to put the next word in the title, too, which is of course together, but it turns out that you can only put a song title in your blog, and not song lyrics, and also you have to put those quotes around it. In other words, there are a lot of rules and, as a first child and lifelong rule-follower, I can’t be too careful. But we have enough to get the ear worm going; you remember how the song goes. If it’s been a while, do yourself a favor and put it on. Turn it up to eleven.
I love that song, in part, because of the way it starts out, so timid and small, as we all do, so different from how we know that it, and we, will end up. The quiet strings pluck shyly at the beginning, the plaintive love-song lyrics venturing bravely out. Then the melody gathers strength, rising on the giant heartbeat of the distant drums until it becomes an anthem. And when it crescendoes, all the voices and instruments coming in at once, then we are all in it together, belonging to the light, and of course to the thunder, too.
But it is the part when the children’s choir joins in that is my favorite, and sometimes – depending on what I have going on at the time – even makes me cry a little. Their youthful voices sound so earnest, so unfettered by life, when they sing about our belonging together. It reminds me, too, of what both Mother Teresa and Glennon Doyle are known for saying: that “we belong to each other”. Something in that always touches me, and the tears that fill my eyes are neither happy nor sad but of a new and increasingly familiar type that did not often fall on my smooth, young, either-happy-or-sad skin but now often drop onto my lined and wrinkled face. They are the tears that come as a signal, these middle-aged days, of a deep vibration of truth. And when I hear the children sing it, I feel that: I know that it is true, that the children have always known that we belonged together. That we must have all started out knowing this. I cannot help but wonder when we forgot.
It was a long time ago, in nursing school, that I first learned about the human need for belonging in the clinical sense; that is to say, in a less acutely painful way than in fourth grade when one of our trio of friends informed me that I was no longer a part of the group, while the other one scratched my forearm with her fingernail until it bled. So I already knew plenty about the deep desire to belong, how elusive it could be, how awful it felt when I got it wrong. Anyway, in college, we had to study Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs, the triangle depicting these innate human needs in a progression from the most basic (food, water, safety) to the most complex (reaching one’s true potential). Maslow’s theory asserted that these were not more true for fourth-grade me, or college me (which seem, in retrospect, to be shockingly similar people) than for everyone else, that they were innate and universal, which meant that everyone wanted desperately to belong, that it wasn’t just me. You’d think this might have helped.
But I took this information forth as if I had found Maslow building his Need Pyramid in one of those handsy, faceless Facebook recipe videos, where everything happens in orderly fashion and fast motion and with jaunty music in the background, successfully convincing you at its finish to confidently declare: I can totally do that! The busy hands would have spread out evenly the most basic of physiological and safety needs at the bottom, then quickly and successfully added the love and belonging layer, a flawless layer of self-esteem ganache, and finally, a little triangle of self-actualization garnish at the top. That’s all there is to mastering the human condition, I would say? I can totally do that!
As always, mastering the recipe is harder than such a video might suggest, and it takes way longer than you expect. For me, it is never orderly and directed but scattered and crazy and messy and in this, as in the kitchen, I keep having to go back and start over – every time I think I’ve got food and water covered, for example, I find myself back at the grocery store. And Maslow’s damn second step, the belonging one, was sometimes so overwhelming that I sort of just skipped ahead to the next ones, devoting myself to the self-esteem layer, for example, or making the dollop of self-actualization look absolutely perfect on the top.
As if skipping steps in a recipe has ever ended well.
Lessons have a way of coming back around, though, so I should not be surprised to find so many memories and thoughts of belonging – and of not belonging – cross my path this week, showing up in the most unexpected of ways, more than enough to make me realize that I am back, like it or not, in life’s classroom.
I thought about what it means to belong as we shuttered our church sanctuary this week, and dedicated a bright and welcoming new one. I remembered how my husband and I had arrived in that parish after a painful parting of the ways with our old one, a place we had hoped and planned to belong forever. But we’d ended up reluctant warriors in a battle for what our family would stand for and what it would not, and we were faced with two paths, stay or go, each threatening its own brand of not belonging. We knew we had to choose, and we did the only thing we felt we could, leaving behind our neighbors and friends, people we loved, and a place which had been sacred to us, which had seen and held important events in the life of our family. We left behind a whole community; we felt like spiritual refugees. We wondered endlessly what the meaning was, what the hell had been the point? It was a deeply sad and lonely time. But we made it through. And this week, with all the celebration and all the promise, all of that felt far away. It felt like we no longer had to choose. And when I looked around and all the other people in our church, I knew well that many of them had traveled sad and lonely and difficult conundrum-paths, on their way there. And as we all sang together, our voices rising, it just felt like we belonged. It felt like we all did.
Also, I was reading Brene Brown’s new book this week, and came across this bit. Honestly, I had to just stop for a minute.
“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.”
~Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
Ooooohh. Game changer. Truth. And also: I can totally do that.
Maybe it’s good that the copyright laws made me truncate my song lyrics, that I couldn’t add the together. Because as I think of it now, I’m thinking that maybe the most important thing is not so much that we belong together as that
We belong.(Full stop)
It is our birthright. It is our connection to our truest selves. It exists even when we have to make hard choices, when we are alone, in the wilderness. It is sacred there, too. We belong.
And maybe, even if we start out shy but a little plucky, tentative but also a little bit brave, if we join enough of our voices together, we, too, can rise up on giant heartbeats echoed in distant drums. We can end up so much bigger than we started out. Maybe together, those voices can even become an anthem.
And that sounds so true to me that – well, y’know – it kinda makes me cry a little.