On New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed was transformed.
For an hour or two, politics went away and people focused on what is, underneath it all, most important to all of us. Suddenly, at midnight, my feed was filled with images of family and friends gathered together, releasing one year and welcoming a new one—people marking the passage of time by remembering what is most valuable to each of us: belonging.
We all just want a place to belong.
Life is almost that simple. We all just want a place we can call home—a place of belonging where a few people know who we truly are and cherish us because of that rather than in spite of that. We all want to love and be loved and, in doing so, to become more fully human. After all, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”
We all just want a place to belong.
Of course, what we want is simple, but getting what we want doesn’t seem simple at all. Relationships are fraught with conflict and tension and disappointment and disillusionment. What’s the trick to finding at least one safe place to truly belong?
It’s the trick of the coffee mug and the gym shoes.
One morning last summer, the day dawned as beautifully as a day can dawn, and I wanted to do two things: I wanted to go for a walk, and I wanted to drink a cup of coffee. A perfect cup of coffee. In my favorite coffee cup. But there wouldn’t be time to do both before the kids awoke. So, I decided, I would need to take my cup of coffee along for the walk. Which is when I thought:
But what if someone sees me walking around with a coffee cup?
People don’t do that. On the go, they put their coffee in something with a lid—a fancy Starbucks double-walled thermal tumbler or a practical Seven Eleven plastic beast. They don’t walk through the neighborhood with a fragile ceramic cup.
I was thirty-nine years old, and I actually had that thought.
Then, a few months later, my son Quinn bought a new pair of gym shoes. He chose his favorite colors—bright red and neon green. He swore they made him run faster and jump higher and, when he put them on, his smile was brighter than his shoes.
Then he wore them to school.
When he came home, he said his shoes didn’t fit right, he stashed them in a drawer, and he dragged out a pair of dilapidated sneakers with twice-replaced shoelaces. We didn’t find out until later that two kids in his third-grade class had made a phobic slur about his shoes.
We overcomplicate the simplicity of belonging by racing to the middle.
We take the truest, most unique, most beautiful, most loveable parts of us, and we hide them away. We think that to fit in we must avoid standing out. We think that to belong we must be alike. This rush to belong by being similar almost always sets in by middle school, which is why most adolescents listen to the same pop music, wear the same styles, and parrot the same phrases. Of course, if someone makes you feel ashamed of your shoes, this rush to hide your truest self can begin as early as third grade. And if the little one inside of you still feels a bit of that shame, it can continue all the way into adulthood—all the way into an early morning walk around the block.
We complicate the simplicity of belonging by trying to be like everyone else, instead of simply being who we were created to be.
But you know what? I was created to like my coffee just so, and I was created to crave early morning walks in nature and in solitude. So, I poured my coffee in my ceramic cup, and I set out into the neighborhood.
And you know what? Quinn was created to love the color red and swooshes in neon green. So, I told him the way to find friends isn’t to be like everyone else; the way to find friends is to like himself enough to actually be who he is, shoes and all. So, he got the shoes out of the drawer and he put them back on.
As I rounded a street corner in our neighborhood, a man walked toward me. He’s a friendly guy, someone I’ve enjoyed talking to from time to time. We chatted briefly, and then he looked at my coffee cup. He told me he’d never seen anyone go for a walk with coffee like that before.
I told him he’d never seen anyone like me before.
And the day Quinn started wearing his shoes again an older kid in the neighborhood texted us a picture of his own gym shoes. They were red and neon green. He told Quinn his shoes were cool and he would look like The Flash when he runs. Quinn flashed a smile from ear-to-ear.
The secret to finding belonging is simple: first find yourself, then embrace yourself, and then reveal yourself—no matter how odd, offbeat, or quirky that revelation might be. The people who love the true you that is revealed are the people you belong to.
This is not an easy trick, but it is a simple one.
Indeed, it’s a simplicity worth celebrating.
On the eve of a new year.
Or the dawn of any new day.
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.