What We’ve All Been Searching for Since Childhood (A Post About Belonging)

At first, it sounded like nonsense.

A few weeks ago we picked up my son, Aidan, from two weeks of residential wilderness camp. He’d attended the camp with a friend from our town, and we were taking them back to the hotel for a decent shower before the long journey home. The two boys filled the thirty-minute drive to the hotel with a seemingly infinite stream of inside jokes born from their two-week adventure together.

Most of what they said made no sense to us. Yet, listening to them, you got the feeling something magical had happened between them—a bond forged in the midst of trials and tribulation and overcoming and rejoicing. Listening to them, you realized the code words they were using were the natural bubbling up of this deep magic. What is this deep magic?


Photo Credit: Bigstock (andres)

It is called belonging.

Closeness. Togetherness. Unity. The merging of two stories into a common language, a common vernacular. Each code word and each inside joke an icon of something greater, something bigger that cannot be completely articulated. Each retold story the retelling of some ineffable connection, the likes of which cannot be grasped but only pointed toward in laughter and delight.

At camp, Aidan and his friend put their phones away and took their hearts out. Instead of watching YouTube videos and sharing someone else’s stories, they created their own stories. Instead of learning someone else’s language, they developed a language all their own. At camp, they found a little bit of what they will continue to search for in middle school and beyond. Indeed, it’s what we’re all searching for all the time.

Our search for belonging can even be felt in our Google searches.

Why does it feel so good when we’re entering a phrase into Google and, after typing only a few characters, Google accurately autocompletes the phrase for us? Because regardless of what we’re searching for on the internet, in life we’re all basically searching for belonging. We’re all searching for a place where someone knows what we’re talking about. When Google autocompletes our search, it means a thousand or ten thousand or maybe even a million people are wondering exactly same thing. And we’re all looking for people with whom we share a common language.

We’re all searching for the inside joke.

A week after we picked up Aidan and his friend from camp, I was driving alone, listening to music, when an old album came up on the playlist. The album was the soundtrack of a quintessential summer in my life—the music was more than twenty years old, but it stirred up eddies in the dust of my memory. Somewhere in the midst of that summer, my friends and I started squawking, repeatedly, the title of one of the songs. Over and over again. And every time we’d say it, we’d disintegrate into laughter. We’d dissolve into each other. We’d become dust in the wind of joy and belonging.

When I arrived at my destination, I texted one of those friends the three words of the song title. It would have been nonsense to anyone else, but he responded immediately with laughter. I told him how much his friendship still means to me. He told me being tight like we were leads to silliness. And timelessness. He told me he loved me.

Belonging is love that doesn’t blow away with time.

I’m almost forty now. There is no residential wilderness camp in my future. I won’t be bunking in the woods with my buds for two weeks, cracking jokes in the dim illumination of dying flashlights. But that doesn’t mean the adventure is over and true belonging is out of reach. It means we have to turn all of life into a wilderness camp. We have to turn our marriages and romances and families and friendships and our moments into places of belonging.

You can start by creating a moment. You can begin by reaching out to one person to whom you’ve belonged. Let them know they matter—that they were, or are, a part of some bigger magic. Share this post with them, if you like. You might even preface it,

with a joyful memory you shared,

with the code words you used,

with an inside joke,

with the timeless language of your belonging.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

20 thoughts on “What We’ve All Been Searching for Since Childhood (A Post About Belonging)

  1. THIS. IS. AMAZING. I am 46 years old and in the past few years have found the best friend that I have been “looking for” or “waiting for.” Now, we say it’s like looking in a mirror. Before I could even open my eyes this AM and read your post (which I go to bed on Tuesday nights anticipating by the way…. just saying) she shared it with me and said “this is what I mean…..” Thank you for validating each week our (your community) hearts, connecting us over and over again for what it is we are all truly searching for!

    • Shannon, thank you for such kinds words about Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings. 🙂 And I’m thrilled for you that you’ve found that someone with whom the common language comes a little bit easier than the rest. We can’t ask for much more!

  2. YES! Except that I will always bunk in the woods for weeks with my buds and our flashlights. We are hikers!

  3. Your post has answered a question for me that has been skirting around the edges of my mind for a long time now. The question is why do I go out of my way to create a fantastical, magical world/experience for/with my two kids in almost everything that we do? I’m not an overly outgoing person, or a particularly silly or dramatic person. Or at least, I never have been. But when my kids came into the world, suddenly I was determined to create that place where we would share that inside joke. And reading what you wrote made me realize that it’s easy to do that with my kids because, at least now while they are young, I’m cool to them. I belong. They belong. I am their tribe and they are mine. Before my kids came along, I had that belonging with my husband. We still have a good relationship, but I couldn’t let loose with him like I do with our kids. Maybe deep inside me I always wanted to be a crazy fun person but was afraid I wouldn’t belong with my group if I acted that way, so I kept my silliness to myself. But here, in this post, I saw the answer to being me and still belonging with my husband. Because he just wants to belong, too. We can still have our inside jokes. Thanks.

    • This is beautiful, Nancy. It sounds like your children have called out the playful little one in you, and you’re all coming together on that common ground. I’m so glad you feel like you can have that part of you and still belong to your husband. It sounds beautiful.

  4. I’ve meet the love of my life about a year ago. We grew up together in the same neighborhood but never knew each other.

    Our sense of belonging is rooted when we recall George’s corner store or realize his neighbor was my first boss. Even knowing we shared the same paper route assures us of our belonging. Some how we must have sat near each other at Wollworth’s lunch counter or stood in the same grocery line.

    Our bond & memories were created without either of us being aware. We weren’t consciencely creating a future we would have together one day. Yet, somehow it was amazingly grafted together for us.
    Perhaps, being “unaware” is what makes belonging so endearing.

    • I’m SO happy for your Kirsten. The way you describe it, passing by each other in life for years without realizing it, makes the whole thing sound like an even deeper magic. Please give him my best!

  5. As always your essays make me think, remember, see more deeply or differently aspects of the timeline of my life. For this I am grateful. Today I could finally put a finger on recent thoughts about my 35 year marriage that ended in divorce 8 years ago. I know I am a happier and more whole happy person because of it. All 5 members of our family (3 adult children when divorce occurred) have been affected in different ways which has caused distance and difficulty between all of us. Reading your words today I am able to recognize that our shared good times, even as pain and hurt walked with us during that same time, represented the best of our ‘belonging’, many silly and special memories of those years still bring me joy. I was not quite able to understand that through the eventual destruction that has ensued but you have provided a context that resonates with me.

    • Yes, Lynn, I’m so grateful for this reflection. Certain kinds of belonging can’t be undone by pain that comes later. Indeed, that is oftentimes what makes the pain so exquisite. Blessings upon you and yours.

  6. This post is so timely. I visited family and friends in my hometown over summer. My connections with 2 friends in particular is akin to a port in a storm. The relationship so affirming and uplifting. We can sit in silence and just be. It is drink of cool water, real refreshment in the daily grind of life. As we get older it seems to get harder to belong.
    I love watching children interact at the playground or pool. They bravely go up to one another (some not all) and say “Do you want to play?” Instant belonging. As adults we sure complicate that.

  7. Dr Kelly, I just adore you…you belong in my life, and in my inbox …much love here for you xxoo

  8. Hi Kelly,
    Every other Wednesday, at 7:15 AM in the neighborhood of Palermo in Buenos Aires, I find myself standing up in the door of the practice of my homeopath doctor, reading your post. This has been almost a ritual in the last months since I arrived to your blog. Every other Wednesday is my favourite day of the week; those 15 minutes, even if it is crazy cold, are so enjoyable…
    And one of the reasons is because I “belong” to the same “group” of people you belong too and the fellow readers belong too; there is an unsaid “understanding” that life is in a certain way, and this makes me feel that “I belong here”. Like I belong to the life of my 2 nephews when we play to be an hamburger and we lay one over the other as we shout “I am the meat” or “I am the bread of the top”… neither my brother or my sister in law understand what we are talking about, but there we are, a 6, 8 and 41 old “belonging”… Or today, exchanging emails with a bunch of people at work who became friends several years ago, and only us know what is the “2nd floor guru”… and each time, invariable, we laugh hard.

    It is so cruel to feel that “we do not belong” and it is even worse the feeling of “being someone else” just to fit in -which is not even close to “belong”, that when we really find these human beings where we can see a fellow traveler just like ourselves, which in fact let us know our own nature, life really turns into a wonderful ride.

    This word means so much to me… As John O´Donohue said in eternal echoes:

    “To be human is to belong. Belonging is a circle that embraces everything; if we reject it, we damage our nature. The word ‘belonging’ holds together the two fundamental aspects of life: Being and Longing, the longing of our Being and the being of our Longing.”

    And I also love the image David Whyte provides:
    This is the bright home
    in which I live,
    this is where
    I ask
    my friends
    to come,
    this is where I want
    to love all the things
    it has taken me so long
    to learn to love.

    Thank you for allowing me to be one of your friends. It makes sense that we met in a post that was inviting us to “ring the bell” and ask the other “to come out and play”. THANK YOU!!!

  9. I just preached a sermon last week on friendship and realized the depth to which people needed to hear the basics of how to be and find those connections. We are so lonely, and we don’t even know how to connect anymore. Thank you for a little taste of the how and why.

  10. Great Story and very true. 30 to 40 fraternity brothers get together every year for a golf outing. Same place every year and this past weekend was our 26th. Same stories, inside jokes, and code speak, but would not have it any other way.

  11. Thank you for writing. It’s a gift. I have a quote to share, about belonging. It powerfully encapsulated the idea of home, for me… The sense of home is being in the world with a sense of belonging, being able to make oneself understood without too much trouble. Sometimes found, sometimes built…

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