The Search To Belong

Warning: this entry may be excessively long…I’m still processing this here so allow me to ramble a bit J

Have you ever read a book and just known as you were reading it that it was going to be fundamental in shaping how you think…that you wouldn’t be able to look at the world the same after reading it or that you at least wouldn’t be able to use the same language to describe the world that you used before? In my life there have been a handful of books like that and I recently finished one that fits in that category. It’s called The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups and it’s by Joseph Myers.

I first heard about this book about 4 years ago when I was living with David and Tara Malouf. David was reading it at the time and I remember him talking to me about it (I now realize as well that some of the “Tuesday night” dialogue was at least partly inspired by the book especially the front porch conversation which struck me enough at the time that I wrote a little short story about it, which I will maybe share here later…?) Anyway, I remember one conversation in particular with David about the book and I remember it frustrated me, I didn’t agree with what David was saying the book said and I remember sort of brushing the concepts aside as unsubstantial and even un-true at least in my life. Funny, actually, now I realize that really I was just showing my own prejudice for personal/intimate space in my inability to accept that people should and could stay in other spaces – I am uncomfortable and don’t do as well in public/social space and so everyone else must be too – I want all of my relationships to become personal space relationships and so everyone else must too – I was at a stage in my life where I needed more personal space relationship then I had and so everyone else must need them too – I don’t think I need to point out my flawed logic at the time.

Anyway, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself and instead of babbling on about my thoughts on the book prior to reading it or continuing on to my thoughts on the book since reading it maybe I should take a minute to tell you all what the book is about. Ok, so I guess we’ll start at the beginning.

The book caught my attention almost right away with Myers chapter on the myths of belonging. He points out a number of things that society/the church says equals belonging but he argues doesn’t always equal belonging: More time = more belonging More commitment = more belonging More purpose = more belonging More personality = more belonging More proximity = more belonging More small groups = more belonging He basically argues that these assumptions are just that assumptions and they aren’t always true in every case. This was a bit frustrating for me because many of these were things that I subscribed to and believed (or at least thought I did). But, as I read through his examples of times when people feel belonging without those things being present or when they don’t feel belonging when they are present I started to think that maybe he had a point. So, now I was tracking with him and curious…if those things that we normally equate with belonging don’t equal belonging then what does? How and when do people feel significant experiences of belonging?

The rest of the book expands on the idea that people can experience belonging in different ways and in different “spaces” and we should allow people to experience belonging with us/our church in the space and way that they feel comfortable. He basically uses Edward T. Hall’s theory on relational space to describe the way people connect to each other in different spaces – public, social, personal or intimate.

Public Space = “Public space belonging occurs when people connect through an outside influence.” For example sports fans experience belonging together because of the team but they may not know each other’s names and they don’t need to, it is a distant belonging (according to Hall people in Public space generally stand 12+ feet apart from each other) but it is still a significant sense of belonging in people’s lives.

Social Space = “Social belonging occurs when we share ‘snapshots’ of what it would be like to be in personal space with us… You belong socially to your favorite bank teller, your pharmacist, or some of the people with whom you work.” This is the space that I have the most trouble with. It’s the small talk, “first impression” space and it’s the one I have had a tendency to devalue in the past as being shallow or insignificant. But, after reading this book one thing that really stood out was the significance and importance of social space. “Social belonging is important for two reasons. First, it provides the space for ‘neighbor’ relationships. A neighbor is someone you know well enough to ask (or provide) small favors. Second, it is important because it provides a safe ‘selection space or sorting space’ for those with whom you would like to develop a ‘deeper’ relationship.”

Personal Space = “Through personal belonging, we share private (not ‘naked’) experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We call the people we connect to in this space ‘close friends.’ They are those who know more about us than an acquaintance would, yet not so much that they feel uncomfortable.” This is the space I think I am most comfortable in and it is generally the space where I want to keep all of my relationships (we will get to why that’s a bad thing in a minute).

Intimate Space = “In intimate belonging we share ‘naked’ experiences, feelings, and thoughts… These people know the ‘naked truth’ about us and the two of us are not ‘ashamed’.” I think I like the idea of intimate space relationships but I’m not as comfortable in intimate space as I am in personal space.

Ok, so now that you are caught up a little bit on the language of the book I want to share the thoughts that really struck me and challenged me and influenced me from this book:

1.       In order to feel a healthy sense of belonging you need more public space connections than social space connections, more social space connections than personal space connections, and more personal space connections that intimate space connections (you should in fact have very few intimate space connections). This makes sense but is hard for me. Like I’ve said before I tend to devalue public and social space connections but according to the author I need even more connections in these spaces then in the other spaces in order to feel a healthy sense of belonging. I have a hard time with this but as I started looking over my life in the past few years this started to make more sense. There have been a few times in the last 10 years that I have felt significant belonging – one was High School, and interestingly though I often describe high school as a time of having a lot of really close friends as I started to look at it more I realized that yes I did have a good handful of close friends but I also had a rather large circle of social connections and public connections. In High School I experienced a sense of public belonging with my whole school at large (I was a big fan of my school and very involved in a number of activities that gave a sense of public belonging). I also experienced a sense of social belonging with all of the people in my class – I knew the names of everyone in my class could hold short conversations with most of them giving them “snapshots” of who I am and I could easily have asked any of them for a favor or have offered to help any of them – they were my neighbors. I also had quite a few select people from our class that I connected with in personal space. And then I had one or two “best friends” who I would sometimes experience intimate space with, sharing raw glimpses of who I was. In college all that changed and for a while I had some public connections and a very few personal space connections but no intimate space connections and no social space connections and I felt lost and disconnected and a lack of belonging. Then for a while in college I moved back home and things started to be more balanced, probably being the most balanced during the time when we were doing Tuesday Nights at David and Tara’s – interestingly Tuesday night added a lot more social space connections to my life and I think that really helped. There were people there that though I would have liked to have gotten to know them in a more personal space we never really got the chance and it stayed a more social space connection and at the time I was frustrated with that sometimes but now I am starting to believe that it was a really healthy thing for those relationships to stay in social space – although there are a few people from that group who continue to fascinate me and I do sometimes feel a sense of regret that we didn’t get to know each other better – but it seems that it was exactly what I needed at that time. Then when I moved to Seattle things got really off balance again but this time in a different direction – suddenly I had an appropriate amount of intimate belonging (1 person, who would soon become my husband) and a LOT of social connections but nothing that I really connected to or belonged to in a public space and no one that I really connected to or belonged to in a personal space at least not for any length of time or in any sustainable way. Really I think that the imbalance in my sense of belonging was largely responsible for my desire to move here to Prague and start over again. And thanks to God’s blessing, I really do feel that this move to Prague has restored some healthy balance to my relational spaces. I feel like I have more sense of belonging then I have since high school – I have a lot of social space connections, a few personal space connections, and an even smaller (1 or 2) intimate space connections.

2.       Another interesting thing from the book was the point that even though relationships may have a certain relational space that they tend to be in NO relationship stays in one space 100% of the time – every relationship moves through the various spaces. This was one of the most interesting and revealing and freeing realizations in the book for me. Knowing that every relationship moves gives me freedom to relax in my relationship and just let them be. I think it was especially freeing to realize that Bryan and I are not always going to connect in intimate space – sometimes we will – but sometimes it’s ok for us to just connect publicly and watch a movie together and have side-by-side time together and other times it’s ok for us to connect socially and just talk small talk about our activities for the day or what happened at work. To realize and admit that our relationship will sometimes not be intimate is so freeing because now when those times come when I don’t feel intimately connected with Bryan I don’t have to feel like it’s wrong, or like it’s my fault and I’ve done something wrong, or like I have to scramble and pull and force our relationship to be intimate right away – I can realize that it is natural and normal and even healthy to have moments when we connect in other spaces and I can relax and just connect to Bryan in whatever space is appropriate and needed at that time. This was a wonderful realization, but not as wonderful as the realization that followed… if all relationships fluctuate between the different spaces doesn’t it make sense that our relationship with God would fluctuate between the different spaces as well? WOW, seriously, I think that was the most freeing realization I’ve had in my relationship with God in a long time. I think often in my life I have thought that I had to always have this intimate, naked, raw, relationship with God – I had to be experiencing His presence in an intimate way or something was wrong. If I wasn’t feeling God’s presence, if I didn’t feel really close to him, if I wasn’t having this intimate connection with him, then I was doing something wrong – maybe I wasn’t making enough time for him, or I wasn’t praying enough, or reading my Bible enough, or there was some sin in my life that was blocking me from him, or something. There have been so many times in my life when I didn’t experience God intimately and I would rack my brain trying to figure out why - what was I doing wrong? Was there some sin in my life that was keeping me from him? No, I don’t think so. Was I not praying? No, I was praying regularly. Was I not reading my Bible? No, I was reading my Bible regularly. I would start to feel so guilty (not a new feeling for me, guilt is something I feel often enough already). To realize that it is ok to relate to God in different ways at different times in my life and that it was ok to sometimes not feel intimate with God and to sometimes connect with him in a more social or public sphere was an infinitely freeing thought and one that I’m still processing. What does it look like to connect and belong to God publicly? What does it look like connect and belong to God socially? I think that the church in the last few decades has focused a lot on connecting to God personally and intimately and I think I know a bit what it looks like to connect and belong to God in those spaces but I’m curious what it would look like to belong to God in the other two spaces. I did have one experience recently that felt very much like a public/social space belonging to God – Bryan and I went to Midnight mass at an Anglican church on Christmas eve and they did a lot of corporate readings and corporate prayers from the book of common prayer and there was something really beautiful about standing side by side with a bunch of other people all saying the same prayer outloud together. It wasn’t personal – I wasn’t making up the words, it might not have even been what I would have personally chosen to pray right then, but just because it was corporate and more social/public space doesn’t make it any less valuable – in fact it felt incredibly refreshing to me and I think I felt more of a sense of belonging to God in that moment then I had in a long while.

3.       Another thing that struck me in the book was something closely related to the previous point… ok, so we now know that it is natural for relationships to move from one space to another and to not always remain in the same relational space, but why do relationships move from one space to another? Myers gives three reasons why a relationship might move spaces - though I don’t think it is an exhaustive list of reasons I think they are good points and maybe the most common reasons relationships move spaces. The firsts is that the environment has changed. Myers points out that “our spatial environments are in constant flux” and that environmental changes often necessitate movement in relationships. He gives the example of summer camp – you go away to camp and the activities and close quarters and environment is very conducive to developing relationships – you meet a lot of people some of whom you feel a closer connection with and due to the nature of the environment you quickly move them into personal space friendships, but then you go home and no matter how many good intentions you have of keeping in touch something changes when you get home – you have other friends, a different environment and inevitably your camp friends get moved back into social or even public space relationships. This made a lot of sense to me – having moved a lot in my life I know that when you move and change environments it is incredibly difficult to stay in the same personal/intimate space relationship you previously had in the old environments. Even though it is getting easier with technology to stay close with people who are far away and stay friends it is still very difficult to stay in the same close relational space that you previously shared with someone. Changing environment denote changing relationships. And that’s OK! The second reason he gives for relationships changing spaces is to protect ourselves and others. Sometimes a relationship that has been in intimate or personal space can become toxic or unhealthy and it is necessary to distance yourself a little bit from the other person. He talks about how when he and his wife got married one of her friends would completely ignore him, this friend didn’t treat him well and so his wife soon distanced herself from that friendship moving it to a more social space. He also talks about how having a friend that is constantly talking about a third person negatively can be really dangerous and once realized it might be necessary to move that friendship to a safer more social space.  The third reason he gives for relationships moving spaces is to sustain harmony – basically there needs to be balance among the spaces and when there isn’t it may become necessary to move someone to a new space. His theory is that in order to have balance among the spaces they should roughly follow the formula Pu8S4P2I – “When we move someone from one space to a space that is already ‘full,’ we frequently move someone who was formerly occupied that space to another space. Many times this is only for a moment; other times for a week or month. And there are times when we move someone into a new space and keep him or her in this new space for longer periods of time.” This third one made a lot of sense to me – there have definitely been times in my life when I had my “fill” of personal space connections or even my fill of social space connections and intimate space connections. One example that comes to mind is that in High school I experienced a great deal of belonging from my school connections many people in my church youth group used to urge me to get more involved in youth group – to connect more there but I just never felt like I could – looking back I was full relationally and didn’t need to belong on a closer level to the youth group. Another example of this from my own life is that when Bryan and I started dating and got married, before this I had one friend in particular who I would say I had an intimate space relationship with and when Bryan and I got married and developed an intimate space relationship I moved this other friend out of my intimate space and into a more personal/social space. It is interesting to note when talking about how and why relationships change spaces that sometimes the change creates tension in relationships. When we try to move someone to a space that they aren’t comfortable with or don’t want to move to the result can be frustration and even conflict. When someone tries to get closer to you then you are comfortable with that can feel threatening and cause tension. Or when someone who you once were close to moves you to a more social space that can be a transition that is filled with tension and hurt feelings. I think it was good for me to recognize that it’s not all about me and my needs – sometimes it’s about the needs of the other person – it may hurt my feelings that they aren’t as close to me as they used to be but I have to recognize that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t be close again at some other point or that they don’t like me, they might just be in a new environment and be making new friends and need to move me for a time so that they can develop their current relationships. One thing the book tried to communicate over and over again is the importance of letting people belong to us in the space that feels healthiest and most natural for them. We shouldn’t try to force people to be closer to us then they want to be. And the church shouldn’t try to force people to be in intimate space relationship with them, it should let people belong in the space that fits their needs. I thought this was a really interesting and freeing idea.

Anyway, the book definitely gave me a language to describe various situations in my life past and present and I think it will be something that sticks with me for a while to come. It also was a really freeing book for me – for me it sort of became a book about letting go of relational guilt – allowing myself to belong and connect in the ways that feel appropriate to me – allowing others to belong and connect in the ways that feel appropriate to them. Relaxing and letting my relationships fluctuate between the spaces without force or manipulation. It was a book that made me think and challenged me but it also made me sit back and just take a deep breath and let myself and others just BE.

If any of you made it to the end of this I’m proud of you…sorry it got so long. Thanks for letting me share the thoughts bouncing around in my head.

Rejoicing in the journey - Beth Stedman