To what extent do we belong to ourselves, and to what extent do we belong to one another?

I was thinking about this today and I don’t have an answer for you, or even a good way to think about it. As I see it, this question is at the heart of almost every uncertain moment of my life – maybe not just mine. At this very moment, in fact, should I be writing this post, or should I open the office door upon which my preschooler throws himself gleefully?

Should alpinists risk, and in fact often lose, their lives climbing on high peaks, leaving behind friends, families, children? Do we owe our children our presence? Do we owe society our productive work? What part of us belongs to us?

It’s easiest to simply say that we owe no one anything, that our lives belong only to ourselves. After all, in the end, no one else but me has to look back on my life and be contented, or not. What other people expect may or may not be helpful or particularly relevant to my specific skills or personality or values.

There is a huge danger in giving every part of our lives over to the expectations and needs of others, to be sure. But there is something I see as an even greater risk: that we give our lives to no one but ourselves.

Dr. Brené Brown writes about this in several of her books, but in particular depth in Braving the Wilderness. She writes about her struggle with something her hero, Dr. Maya Angelou, said about belonging in 1973:

MAYA ANGELOU: You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…
BILL MOYERS: Do you belong anywhere?
MAYA ANGELOU: I haven’t yet.
BILL MOYERS: Do you belong to anyone?
MAYA ANGELOU: More and more… I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.

Dr. Brown had discovered in her social work research, which she conducted via what is known as grounded theory methodology (that’s worth a Google, by the way), that “connection and belonging are why we are here.” So how, in fact, can it also be true that freedom and great reward can come from belonging no place? Must we choose between connection and freedom?

She resolved this by drawing a distinction between fitting in and belonging. Belonging is when we can be completely ourselves to be accepted and loved, and fitting in is when we change ourselves to be accepted and loved.

For Dr. Brown, when we belong to ourselves, we don’t accept the shallowness of “fitting in.” If no one in our immediate vicinity accepts who we are, well, we might have to spend some time in the wilderness, as she puts it. I don’t think this means we are refusing responsibility to others, but only that we don’t accept responsibility that is defined by someone else’s values. Maybe it is the hardest way, right down the middle. We belong to ourselves to the extent that we are accountable to our own conscience and values. And we belong to one another to the extent that we are responsible for treating others in according with our conscience and values. More than that – we belong to each other because we cannot be separated from each other and survive. I mean that very literally – if humans were all suddenly separated from one another and could not reconnect, our species would not survive.

So none of this means that when someone is telling me something that conflicts with my values, that I have to accept it – but that I trust that they are not better or worse than me, that we are connected anyway, and stand in my own truth, and let them stand in theirs.

Maybe a lot of words to say what has been said many times before, but I can tell you that it isn’t easy to belong to myself, to like and trust myself like this. I find that many focus on the beginning of Maya Angelou’s quote, where she says, “The price is high. The reward is great.” But for me, here is the challenge:

More and more… I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.

The way she says it is, “More and more…” She shows the process she is going through, that it isn’t somewhere she has arrived, but that she has to choose it all the time, over and over.

I hope it gets easier the more you do it.


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