It’s spring again in Illinois, and that means a lot of things—green-soft grass, pollen everywhere, thunderstorms, soccer games, and the countdown to summer. It also means a big empty box sitting in the foyer of my daughter’s preschool, advertising the countdown until the chicks hatch. We arrive at the school on day zero and peer over the edge of the box.
I ask her where the eggs are.
My daughter looks at me somberly and says, “The chicks didn’t have a momma, so we needed to keep them warm in an escalator.”
I think about telling her it’s called an incubator, but I know what she means and not every moment needs to be a teaching moment. I smile. She smiles and grabs my hand and we walk into her class together.
How do we know when we belong?
The people we belong to know what we mean.
I’ve seen it countless times over the years.
In the middle of a marital or family therapy session, someone will say something gutsy and loving and I know exactly what he or she means, but it’s stated clumsily and with an ounce (or more) of protectiveness and defensiveness. As an objective observer, I can see the tenderness through the messiness.
I hold my breath, hoping I’m not the only one who knows what was meant.
And then I cringe a little inside when the meaning of the words is missed altogether, when the heart of a loved one isn’t known or trusted or believed in. I cringe because showing that good heart took courage and now it will probably go more deeply into hiding.
But then there are the other moments.
Moments in which the heart stumbling through the words is seen and its goodness is trusted and its beauty is believed in. There are other moments in which a partner or a family member sees the incubator through the escalator.
A place of belonging is not the place where someone can read our mind or anticipate what we might say. A place of belonging happens when someone receives the words we’ve already said or the things we’ve already done and, sometimes, understands their meaning even better than we do.
Recently, my wife and I were having lunch in a fast food restaurant. We were talking about the many things happening in our life, when I realized we had forgotten napkins. Mid-thought, I got up, retrieved a napkin for myself, and sat back down. My wife looked at me and said, in equal parts amusement and annoyance, “Were you planning to get me a napkin, too?”
I smiled sheepishly and retrieved one.
When I sat back down, she looked at me and said, “I know in your heart you want to get me a napkin. You want to think of me and show me love. But sometimes your anxious brain doesn’t cooperate.”
In a fast food restaurant, my wife knew what I meant.
In a fast food restaurant, I belonged.
In two weeks, my family will be moving to a new town, where we will work and live and love and keep growing up. We’ll be leaving our town, but far more importantly and painfully, we’ll be leaving our people. The people we belong to.
How do I know we belong to them?
Because they know what we mean.
Over the years, I have been messy and angry and distracted and absent and sad and confrontational and withdrawn and overjoyed and clueless and scared and a little too brave and I’ve made mistakes and I’ve hurt feelings and I’ve cared well for the people I love and I’ve cared poorly for them, too.
But when my love has been an escalator, they’ve known I meant it to be an incubator.
It takes time and courage and not a little bit of luck to find a community like that. Even more, it takes time to trust and believe the way they see you is for real. To trust it isn’t going away. To trust they will be there for you, especially when you are at your sloppiest.
Our family’s transition this month is more pronounced than some, but I think most of us are in some way moving between places of belonging. We’re always leaving some people, taking others with us, and meeting new people along the way. So, perhaps the words of gratitude I feel right now are words we all need to share with the people we have, do, and will belong to:
To those we are leaving behind, words fail the gratitude we feel for the ways you have loved us, even when we used the wrong words. To those who will remain with us along the way, thank you for standing by our side and loving us in the midst of our crazy. And to those we are moving toward, thank you for being patient with us. We are going to show ourselves to you. We hope you can see who we are, underneath all our mess.
When we say escalator instead of incubator, we hope you know what we mean.
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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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.