Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.
Or maybe, for the moment, I’m just feeling humble enough to hear the answer. Either way, on a random Sunday afternoon, I ask my oldest son, Aidan—a teenager with plenty of insights and opinions about our family—what is the most unbearable thing about having me for a father? His answer:
All the sighing.
My wife corroborates his report. She says I’ve been walking around sighing a lot. I know there’s some truth to it. Plenty. So, I start paying attention to myself. For the rest of the afternoon, I catch myself sighing more than a dozen times. In part, I’m trying to relax, but more often than I’d like to admit, the sighing is communicating something.
It’s communicating that I feel burdened, not by the stress inside of me, but by the stress around me.
So, here’s my son, in the midst of his adolescent search for a place to belong—a place where he is embraced, not because he is easy but because he is worthy—and hoping to find that place with his father. Instead, all too often, rather than finding belonging, he hears a sigh.
How can we recognize the places we truly belong?
We belong where our worthiness is not dependent upon our easiness. We belong where we can be a burden without feeling like a burden. We belong where we can be needy and still feel wanted. We belong where we can be messy and loved, broken and embraced, complicated and celebrated.
In other words, the place we truly belong is where our humanity is not met with a sigh.
Five days later, I see Aidan quietly tinkering with the family printer. I ask him what he is up to. He says, meekly, that he needs to make approximately a hundred pages-worth of copies for his a cappella group. I tell him our inkjet printer will take approximately a hundred years to get through that job. I pick up the phone, call a local drug store, and locate a Xerox machine we can use. I tell him we’ll stop by there to make the copies before his voice lesson.
And this kid gives me a bear hug with the strength of an adult.
He’s grateful for a hundred copies but, even more, I think he was grateful for the absence of a dozen sighs. He got to be inconvenient, without being treated as an inconvenience. He got to shift some of his burden to me, without being treated like a burden himself.
He got a place to belong.
Of course, true belonging is always a mutuality—if our humanity is met with an embrace rather than a sigh, we must be prepared to open our arms to the humanity of those we belong to, as well. In places of true belonging, sometimes, we are the unburdened one, and sometimes we are the one doing the unburdening.
A week after we stopped at the drug store to make the copies, Aidan’s younger brother is in tears. He’s been tasked with bringing an oar to school as a prop for a play, but when I hand him the oar and it’s taller than he is and he pictures himself walking across the playground with it—like a lightning rod for elementary school teasing—he panics. He wants to fulfill his obligation to the class, but he can’t bring himself to carry it to school.
So Aidan does it for him.
The unburdened one becoming the burdened one. No sighs. Just help asked for and help received. Worthiness not dependent upon easiness.
Our family has a long way to go to become a place of true belonging. But for a week, we found our way to something like it, and I hope we’ll keep finding our way back there. Indeed, I hope this great big family we call humanity can find our way there, too. After all, this planet is home.
We may as well make it a loving one.
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.