On Belonging

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It is a natural inclination of the human soul, upon feeling alienated in its native country for a protracted time, to take it upon itself to find belonging elsewhere. There exists within mankind a deep and unrelenting need to belong, particularly within a coterie of those whom he deems kindred spirits, those whose orientation—be it earthy, spiritual, mental, or physical—closely aligns with his own, and, upon finding such a group, he endeavours to become a permanent fixture among their ranks.

But I do not merely describe the generic “man,” ill-defined and eternally nebulous. No, the need to belong strikes far closer to home. I describe each one of us. We intrinsically long part not merely of something bigger than ourselves, but something other than ourselves. It does not wholly matter what this so-called “other” consists of, so long as it is a widening of personal horizons which fractures the aloneness which our individualism naturally affords us.

There is some irony in this sentiment, no doubt, for our world is one in which the individual takes precedent. The worldwide bourgeoning of liberal individualism, a worthy reverberation of democratic equality, has untethered the individual from the rigid constraints of societal expectations, familial responsibility, and personal sacrifice for the greater good. We escape with ease the circles into which we were born, casting off the weighty shackles of social definition, and seek our destinies abroad, moving to new cities—or even countries, acquiring new citizenship, adopting new religions, integrating into new friend groups, marrying and divorcing at whim, exploring new sports and hobbies, joining political parties, anarchist parties, and garden parties. What freedom!

And yet, despite our adamant focus upon self, we have become paradoxically not more but less fulfilled—not more but less ourselves. It may well take a village to raise a child, but once that child gains self-autonomy, she may well cast the village aside and reinterpret herself. Self-definition, perhaps better called redefinition, has become a natural part of “finding one’s self” or “being true to one’s heart,” an undertaking no more remarkable than switching one’s preferred brand of toothpaste, or selecting a side of Caesar rather than spring vegetables. But there is little value in a thing which can be easily rejected and replaced. Frivolous reinvention has made worthless the very selves we sought create.

The symptoms of our so-called independence belie our true condition. Characteristically apt in his analysis, De Tocqueville writes in his The Old Regime and the Revolution, “People today, no longer attached to one another by ties of caste, class, guild or family, are all too inclined to be preoccupied with their own private interests, too given to looking out for themselves alone and withdrawing into a narrow individualism where all public virtues are smothered.” We have attained freedom, yes—the freedom of a ship without sails or an anchor, cast adrift on open waters, tossed ceaselessly by the foiling waves of an unforgiving sea.

Never before has it been easier to reinvent ourselves, and for all our skill at perpetual metamorphosis, we have never been more alone. This surprises us. After all, does it not follow that the truer we are to ourselves, the easter it will be to connect with those who are the most fundamentally akin to us? Yet, this is hardly the case. Kindred spirits are difficult to distinguish when everyone is wearing a mask. And what could be more of a mask than persistent reinvention?

We reinvent ourselves not to find ourselves but to lose ourselves, because we are dissatisfied, sometimes rightly so, with the original product that is our identity. We are deeply uncomfortable with the image staring at us from the mirror not because it doesn’t accurately reflect us, but because it does. The face staring back at us is distinctly our own—perhaps a little scarred, distinctly asymmetrical, less poised than we prefer—but ourselves nonetheless. We may be infinitely disturbed by our own likeness, but that does not make it any less our own.

This claim no doubt jars with modern sentiment: “We are not what we see, but what we have it in ourselves to be. Self-definition, not self-reflection, determines who we truly are!” Willful delusion of this kind may be comforting—inspiring, even—but this alone does not make it true. To claim that we are the product of our unrealized potential and unsubstantiated self-definition is tantamount to suggesting that world peace exists because we can envision the possibility of such peace, or that a child is in fact an adult because it possess the future potential to become one. Reality is not contingent upon our perception of it, and no fantasies about the untapped possibilities of the future can alter that reality before it itself alters.

While our penchant for reinvention spurred by our own insatiable individuality, ought to reckon us closer to our fellow man, we instead find ourselves alienated all the more. In a world in which each person is not who he is, but who he claims himself to be, it is ludicrous to assume that he should find himself increasingly in the confidence of others. We spit upon society and are shocked when it does not embrace us. We reject ourselves and are distressed when everyone else does as well. We are superficial shapeshifters, rebelling against our own reflections, true to nobody, least of all ourselves, and are surprised when the world does not reward us for our so-called “authenticity.” Individuality comes at a cost, and it is one we have dearly borne.

In our struggle to belong, we do ourselves no favours. We forget to ask what it means to belong, and to whom precisely we desire to belong. For belonging, by its very definition, is to rescind some level of individuality; you cannot belong fully to yourself and partially to another. The logic does not follow. Herein lies the crux. We cling to our individuality too fiercely, too adamantly, to afford another person a portion of ourselves, possessing no allusions of compromise. Infinite freedom cannot be retained whilst also enjoying the pleasures of a shared life with others. The two notions are fundamentally incompatible. To share life with another necessitates the sacrifice of some part of that life, and we in doing so become, somewhat oxymoronically, more wholly ourselves. Belonging demands surrender, a surrender of self within which alone self may be made complete. It is in losing ourselves that we ultimately find belonging.

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