Mid-Week Notes: Being Connected vs Belonging
Is Imitation Better than the Real Thing?
The sermon this Sunday at our meeting was on the topic of belonging. It was a great message that I’m still thinking about. Belonging is a topic I’ve written about some in the past and think about often. I have also struggled with it. More often than not, I have found myself on the edges of community, struggling to fit in, rather than feeling a deep sense of belonging.
As I write this, I wonder how normal it is for people to lack a sense of belonging? I doubt mine is a unique experience. Other questions arise:
How much of our struggling to belong is the result of modern mobility and people moving from place to place?
How much of it comes from divisive political figures driving wedges into communities as they scapegoat some people as evil in the name of getting a few more votes?
How much of a lack of belonging is due to the impacts of technology, new media, capitalism, and the drive for more?
Where does a loss of relatedness to place and the natural world around us fit into this?
Perhaps to feel a sense of belonging, to aid in the creation of that for others, is itself a practice of resistance to empire today. To belong is to resist the pull of culture that seeks to sort us, divide us, and leave us settling for a simulacra of community.
In these reflections I’ve noticed something else. Some of the times I’ve felt belonging come with hindsight. I did not necessarily notice when we lived in Canton, OH, that our “8th Street Bible Study Group,” which met in the living room of our first apartment, was one such place of belonging. Often upwards of 25-30 people piled into a tiny apartment, sharing their life stories with each other, eating together, being vulnerable, praying for, and supporting one another through difficult situations. I knew that it was good, but I did not realize the power of that experience: 20 years in the future, I’d consider that to be one of the highlights in my story of community building and belonging.
How often do we realize in the moment that we are experiencing belonging, and how often is it something we see only in hindsight?
I have other stories of belonging to share at some point, but one other experience important to me was the meeting we served in WA. Here not only did we have the vulnerability necessary to help build belonging, but there was also an essential intergenerational aspect. Older adults and elders there were very good at welcoming in younger families and people into the meeting. Instead of controlling spaces and maintaining their positions of power, established members of that community shared power, made way for new leadership, invited others into the meeting in ways that allowed not only for belonging but for change to occur. Elders’ stories, perspectives, and “weightiness” grounded the community, helping to make it a place where one could feel like they belong.
There’s something about the way an older community— like a faith community that has been around for 100+ years, a school with deep roots, a people who span generations— becomes the kind of place that one can become a part of. At my work, Guilford College, started in 1837, there is a real sense of being a part of a much longer story. That when I belong, I belong to something much bigger than myself. I think this is an important part of belonging as well.
There is another challenge I see with belonging today: the ease of connectivity to one another. Networking, connection, and having “friends/followers,” are almost sacrosanct in a world built around staying connected to one another even when we’re physically a part. But in my experience, being connected is not the same as belonging. Our technologies powered by cellular networks connect us through social media platforms and the internet, making the promise of community, but rarely - if ever - delivering on the promise. Part of this is because I think the shallower forms of relationship that connectivity provides allow us to maintain busier lifestyles, which in turn make it much harder to do the work of belonging. Connectivity, as the primary way to relate, also allows us to maintain exponentially more “friends” flooding our ability to go deep. Before I left Facebook, I had close to 3,000 “friends.” No, I didn’t. I was connected, extremely loosely in the case of about 2925 of them, to these “friends.” What is gained here in the context of real belonging? This is part of why I left. Seeing that actually made me feel more lonely and isolated. Seeing the imitation of friendship made me long for the real thing. Belonging is community at depth. It comes with time, hard work, sharing meals, laughter, conflict, vulnerability, and more. Belonging names an evolving process. While being connected can be good, we should try to avoid settling for this as real community.
I wonder if this names part of the issue we keep seeing crop up around Zoom and worshiping communities? Last week, a reader asked if people could experience unmediated connection with God over Zoom the way the do in Quaker meeting? It’s an interesting question, and I did my best to respond, but I wonder if this question around connection and belonging is closer to what we’re baffled by?
Does Zoom change the basic dynamics of the worshipping community? Can people experience God over Zoom? Yes, of course. Are people able to be connected to the communities they love over Zoom? Yes, most definitely. But what about belonging? Does Zoom, do our digital tools, foster real, ongoing belonging? Does it change if the people connected were already deeply in community before using digital tools to connect? And how does this change if people are new to the community? What are the longer term impacts of a community that is connected but no longer fosters deep belonging and commitment to one another?
I don’t know the full answers to these questions, but I wanted to invite you into them with me. I’ve love to hear your thoughts and experiences around these topics. I suspect that in the short term our sense of these things will be different then if we’re looking 3-5 years back and seeing the impact of relationships completely mediated by the constraints of our apps and devices. I also suspect that it matters how we answer these things if / when we have experienced belonging for ourselves.
When have you felt belonging at its best?
What stands in the way for you of further belonging?
What do you think about the differences between connectivity and belonging?