How to Find Belonging (Either Beautifully or Violently)

We’re watching security footage.

The image shows a parking lot sprawled out in front of our car. Several dots in the distance gradually materialize into three kids walking toward the camera. As they draw closer, their age becomes clear—they are in the nomad’s land of identity that is late middle school or early high school.

As they approach our car, talking and laughing, one kid points at our front bumper, walks toward it, and gives it a vicious kick, before they walk on and pass out of camera view.

My wife, forgetting for a moment what it was like to be that age, asks rhetorically, “Why would a kid do something like that?”

My daughter—who is just a little younger than those boys and keenly aware of what it’s like to be a tweenager—is standing behind us. Over my shoulder I can hear her whispered response to my wife’s question.

“Because he thinks his friends will like him more.”

The whole scene was about belonging. It’s always about belonging, Mom. Everything is about belonging, Dad. From the mouths of babes, or tweenagers at least.

It’s a quaint story when it’s about a group of kids in an almost empty parking lot way off in one quiet corner of civilization. It becomes a potentially life-changing story when you realize we’ve all still got a tweenager inside of us who is wondering if we’ll belong, and looking for ways to ensure we don’t end up alone.

Who do you become in order to attract companionship? What do you do in order to keep your companionship? Which so-called cars are you willing to kick in order increase the odds you end up unlonely? There’s no shame in admitting it. I’d like to say I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to not resort to such cheap tricks. But in the right moment with the wrong people and a particularly uncertain sense of myself, who knows what I’m capable of.

Around the time of the parking lot vandal, our family attended a conference for families. The keynote speaker was a young man named Nick Santonastasso. Nick was born with Hanhart syndrome, a rare condition that left him with no legs, one arm, and a single finger. That day, Nick told one story in particular that the tweenager in me will never forget. (Apologies to Nick if my recollection has morphed into something truer to my needs than to his story.)

Nick was booked on one of those airlines where passengers get to choose their own seat. As a person with a disability, he was invited to board first, and he chose a prime seat, right in the front of the plane. The flight attendant warned him, “These are good seats and we have a full flight—you’re going to have company right away, so get yourself situated as soon as you can.” Soon, the other passengers began boarding.

Every one of them looked at him, bypassed the prime seats next to him, and chose a lesser seat in the back of the plane.

Nick turned to look out the window, not because there was something to see out there, but because he didn’t want his fellow passengers to see him crying. Feelings of ugliness and loneliness and unworthiness flowed from his tear ducts. Until, from somewhere deep within him, he heard a voice. This is what it said:

“Nick, your body isn’t working against you. It’s working for you. It’s screening out the people you don’t want in your life.”

There are at least two very different ways to find the people you belong to. The first is the way of a parking lot vandal and, sadly, most of our social media these days. It’s to kick all the metaphorical cars around you—to be angry and aggressive and violent and damaging and rejecting—and to hope those who are walking with you through the parking lot of life will like you a little more for all of your strength and ego.

The other way is to show up as you actually are, with all your countless imperfections and inabilities and insecurities—just laid bare, vulnerable, and alone—and to allow the rejecting of you to become the thing that purifies your circles of belonging. This takes a lot of faith—in yourself and your worthiness, in others and their goodness, in existence and its justice. After all, it wouldn’t be vulnerability if it didn’t require a little more faith than you’ve got. But in the end, that’s the beauty of it—it produces twice the rewards:

As your sense of belonging grows, your faith in everything else does, too.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.