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?
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.
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.