The Fallacy of Belonging

“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” Goethe

My post this morning brought up the question of belonging. Here’s my theory. MOST people feel like they don’t belong. Our culture — with its component of rugged individualism — carries within it a paradox; to belong you need to be a rugged individualist. If you can reconcile those two things, I want to read about it.

The first time I was shunned I was about 4 years old. I went to play with my two little girl neighborhood friends in Lorinda’s new sandbox. When I arrived, the two little girls said, “What’s your favorite color?”

I said, “Green.”

They said, “You can’t play with us. Our favorite color is pink,” and they threw sand in my face. It went on like that off and on all through school. There was a kid on our street who just hated my brother and me and literally tried to kill us by stringing a piano wire across two street signs so when we rode our bikes it would cut our necks. Yep. That really happened.

I had my first REAL friend when I was in sixth and seventh grade. We had fun and could talk about anything with each other. I was her first real friend, too. Luckily, we each had GREAT brothers so maybe we hadn’t even felt the absence most of the time. I was always interested in hearing about horses, dressage and classical languages; she never got tired of hearing about Lawrence of Arabia. We both loved the forest and discussing ideas. We spoke Spanish together. When I got my first crush, I was subjected to a lot of sympathetic teasing from her and her brother who called my crush a “short, fat, toad with glasses.” Not far wrong, but whatev’

Then high school. Sitting in a lecture hall. Two girls in front of me talking about a party coming up. Then, “Ssshh. Martha’s here and I’m not inviting HER.” And THOSE two girls? One was one of the few Jews in my high school. The other had struggled for years with her weight and an eating disorder. Both of them knew the pain of not belonging. Both of them became friends of mine over time.

As I got older and taught some thousands and thousands of kids I saw that belonging is a huge issue and when you’re the person in front of the classroom there is substantial head standing to “belong” to the person “giving out” grades. Kids wanted to “belong” to the elite group of kids who got high grades and better opportunities.

And the Black kids wanted to belong to each other to the point where if any black kid knew more words and understood the poetry belonging to “the man” they were ridiculed by the other black kids. And the Mexican kids? Don’t ever really learn English. A big swirling maelstrom of belonging and not belonging.

Us vs. them is a human problem.

I see this in our nation now. Trump’s cult is a cult of “belonging” — red shirts, trump hats, etc. ad nauseam. IF the OTHER side (there shouldn’t be “sides”) did something similar I’m sure people would be wearing the uniform of the OTHER side. We did have the “blue wave” wherein you vote “blue” regardless. And why do we have team colors instead of leaders? WTF? Fucks like MTG are all about the team — she and Bobo are cheerleaders for 45 — Pres. 45 and Colt 45. This isn’t even politicization; it’s conformity.

As I headed toward junior high, my dad gave me Ayn Rand’s book, Anthem which is about non-conformity and the enforced conformity of totalitarianism. I don’t know about the political philosophy inherent or coalesced around Rand’s books, but my dad’s point was clear; for some reason I was/am “different.” I needed to embrace that and take it like a trophy into my future. I don’t know how or why I’m “different,” but I operate under the theory that everyone believes he/she is different. So we try to form groups of people who are similarly different — LGBTQ etc. for example, or BLM, or or or…

Below is the beautiful, loving freak show to which I belong by virtue of being my brother’s sister and the friend to some of these people in high school

Five of these people I’ve known since I was 15. One of them — the one I didn’t know in high school — is now one of my closest friends. One of them is the little sister of the boy who was my best friend in high school who lived up the street from me. And the dog is a sweet, empathetic, intelligent, caring little mixed breed. It’s 2012 and we are headed to the Garden of the Gods to dispose of some of my brother Kirk’s ashes.

My students told me all the time, “You’re not like other teachers.” I don’t know what they meant. I wasn’t in any other teachers’ classes. How could I judge that and what was the standard? One of my neighbors said to me a while back, “You don’t talk about what other people talk about.” I heard all of that. I heard that if I wanted to fit in here (and I needed to) I should shut up and listen. Message heard. Still, one of my acquaintances here is terrified of me, and, as a result, openly mean. OK. That’s on her and it’s juvenile, but I don’t have to play in her yard.

And expectations? We always want to know what we can expect from others — I think every standardized assessment boils down to that. “Oh, IQ of 120? Well we can expect this and that.” “Oh, this dominant learning style? We can expect this or that.” “Oh, ADHD? OK, we can expect this or that.”

I think that all this is because we are scary monsters and we want to know we’re safe around other people. A few years ago I got a 16 page letter from a man in San Diego I was once interested in and spent a lot of time with. This letter arrived four or five years after I moved away from California. Huh? The relationship never got off the ground. In this letter he explained it was because I scared him. I’ve heard that a few other times, too. Scared? Why? The fundamental fear we all have is of the unfamiliar. If we can standardize something and develop a set of reasonable expectations, we feel safe. OK, a lot of hominids have disappeared over the eons and those disappearances appear to be at the fabulously dextrous hands of Homo Sapien.

I think we carry, throughout our lives, the scars of whatever childhood and adolescent meanies we experienced. I also don’t think anyone really feels like they “belong,” probably especially during those formative years of high school. I, for one, had no idea who I was in high school until my 40th reunion when, suddenly, moved by a deep understanding of those years and my part in them, I started to weep while standing in the cafeteria. Suddenly, I was enveloped in a group hug of more than 20 people. It was as if my revelation emanated all across the room and touched everyone in it.

My favorite Life is Good shirt is wearing out at the elbows. It’s a snowflake. Below it says, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” Yep. Acceptance begins at home, with each one of us. I am a weirdo but so what?

This is a Facebook post from a few days ago. Belonging. We will always and only really belong to the people who “get” us and there won’t be many of them. But with whom else do we want to belong? Few and far between, maybe, and maybe it’ll be a dog or a landscape or a moment or a dead writer. In the really magic times, it’s a person. Our dim-witted, clannish drive will lead us to ostracize others for the most irrelevant and superficial reasons. That’s the moral of this story. ❤️

May22 at 6:31PM  · Shared with Your friends


Today at City Market I was waiting for my order and listening to Queen. Not my favorite band, but it was the best thing on the radio at that moment, and Bohemian Rhapsody has great lyrics and their song, “Keep Yourself Alive” was one of my anthems during Covid (and beyond).

Suddenly I heard a gentle knock on my window and there was Destinee making faces at me through my window. I cracked up.

Destinee is one of the 2 black people in the San Luis Valley (I’m exaggerating; there are more than 2. Maybe 5). She’s a young woman in her late 20s/early 30s. We bonded during Covid joking around about race, as it happened. It was during the BLM stuff going on. I think it was the second time she brought out my groceries. Among the stuff I always buy is heavy cream which is on the top shelf in a dairy fridge. I have had to make some stellar mountaineering moves to get it. I even had a fellow shopper spot me while I was doing that one day.

Anyhoo, Destinee is about as tall as me — 5’1″. I said, “Did you get that from the top shelf there?” she said, “I did.” I said, “Not easy. I’ve had to climb up that refrigerator to get it myself. People just don’t think about the challenges of short people.”

She was cracking up. And I said, “Short lives matter,” and that was it. She knew where I stand on the question of race and I know where she is. It’s not there.

But it is. Today she said “I didn’t put your bananas in the bag because plastic makes them turn brown.”

I said, “Great, thanks, I didn’t know that and I don’t care.”

“OH since Covid, people are, ugh,” she shuddered. “Just mad. I don’t have medicine for that. And have you noticed how all the racists just come out of the closet or something? And now we have Monkey Flu?”

I shook my head thinking one more reason to be afraid of each other. Covid still draws attacks on Asians. A disease from Africa? Anyone can see where that can go.

“Yep,” I said, “Covid and politics. It’s going to be like this for a generation, I’m afraid.”

On her job at City Market she’s supporting her mom and herself. She’s very smart, very brave, very funny and just one of the most stellar people I’ve met out here. We talked about our “representative” and how she doesn’t represent us. I said, “Yeah, like universities are indoctrination camps. I taught women, age 40 or so, brought their kids to class, their life dream was an education.” And I talked openly about teaching and the students I had taught and I cried. Destinee gave me a big hug. “38 years,” I said. “And I loved it.”

We talked some more about a couple of my students and she said, “Well, the way things are here now I’m not going to school here.”

I said, “You mean Adams State is like that?”

“Yeah. Now.” I know she used to go. I thought my heart would break.

8 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Belonging

  1. Lord of mercy! I am just wowed by this post. I can hardly contain myself. 1) Different but the same has been my life. The arbitrary conditions of friendship shift like sands. I had times when I felt friendless and then I grew up and became comfortable with being my own best friend. From that point I’ve found many who I call friend… 2) As for being part of the problem vs part of the solution who can tell any more? I used to think it was all very clear cut but everything when examined has shades of grey. I identify as progressive but I’m also a realist. Still the whole climate of this country has been tainted with a very uncomplimentary shade of orange45. 3) There is such sadness in the exchange between you and Destinee. Humor yes, but humor can’t fight racism and win. I just don’t have any answers – just the same question that has been around for years, dripping like blood, dripping like sweat – Why?

    • Destinee is one of maybe a handful of people I’ve met here that I feel absolutely free communicating with. One of the others — Perla — is an Argentinian who fled a military dictatorship. The others were the kids up the alley, another was a young woman who ran the animal shelter here and has since moved to Denver. I personally think I hit the jackpot.

      I know we’re not part of the problem. I know this because I know we’re not mean to people, we vote, we pay our taxes, we’re patient with the status quo, we’re sad when kids are shot or anyone else for that matter. We find racism unacceptable and perplexing. We tried to live lives of service to others. In the face of everything we maintain our faith while we question it (very important). We understand that people have objective needs like food, clothing, healthcare, safety. This isn’t virtue signaling; this is basic humanity, what it means to be human, fully human. In Destinee’s and my talk, that was the whole point that we need to treat each other humanely because life isn’t easy. To be outraged by what is truly outrageous is human. To feel wonder watching an eagle hunt is human. We’re doing OK, Val. ❤

  2. As George Harrison sang “Please don’t be long. Pease don’t you be very long. Don’t belong. Don’t belong.” I think he got it – the longing to belong, the trap of longing, the trap of belonging.

  3. Evidently, I’m a human being. I share this planet with way too many others of my species. Do I belong to anything? Probably, but I try not to think about it. And I love the t-shirt. If I had one of those, I’d wear it to tatters.

    • I think it’s because 1) they never grow up and 2) they’re unintelligent and unimaginative and lacking in compassion, 3) they STILL desperately want to belong because of all the above… 😀

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