You know how some memories really linger with you…sometimes for years? And, in my case at least, it’s usually not life’s big moments, but the really quiet (and frankly forgettable) incidents that stick with me.
I have this one vivid, somewhat uncomfortable memory of a late evening in early spring during my sophomore year of college. I was feeling particularly gloomy and self-pitying that evening, and terribly alone. (My whole life, all my worst moments of self-pity have been brought on by that awful sense of being alone.) Since the weather was particularly lovely that evening, I took my books to a bench outside, near enough to the student center that I could watch people come and go, but far enough away that I wouldn’t be dragged into conversation and distracted from my studies. But I was distracted from my studies. I was distracted by my own self-pity and loneliness, mostly, and by the noise of my peers coming and going from the student center, talking and laughing and taking in the beautiful evening. I remember watching them all together and wondering what makes for belonging.
I guess I’m thinking about this memory in particular today because I found myself wondering the same thing yesterday. I attended a baptism at St. Mary’s in Old Town Alexandria, and as I sat alone in my pew and watched my acquaintances mingle and smile and clearly enjoy being together before the ceremony began, I wondered what makes people belong, and I think by this I mean, what makes people belong with other people. Some people settle into all their relationships with such delightful ease. For myself, I’ve always found new relationships a bit like new braces or glasses: really, really uncomfortable, to say the least. Growing up I could fall back on the safety of my family and all the comfortable relationships in my life where I knew I really belonged. In a way, I was more willing back then to make the effort to reach out, because if it didn’t work out I had a place to return to.
But that’s not really a luxury a single twenty-something has when she’s living out on her own. It’s back to that community question: in order to have it, you have to get out there and build it, and that process involves a lot of standing awkwardly at the back of the room, trying desperately to think of something (anything!) to say to engage these virtual strangers in conversation and thus continue the painful task of building relationships with them. The process does get easier as time goes on, and I’m grateful to be at the point where I know that from experience. And as I come to find myself actually belonging (it’s always a surprise) in more and more places, I find that my role in these community-building moments is changing. I’m not always coming into new situations as the stranger who has a certain social responsibility to make herself known or risk being overlooked. Now, in many cases, I am known; now it is my responsibility to seek out the newer strangers who may be standing with their arms folded in the corner, just longing to be involved in conversation.
It really is just that: a responsibility. I always thought that if I could just get to that point where I really felt like I belonged somewhere, then I could finally rest. But this isn’t a “me-only” project. Belonging is wonderful,but those who belong can’t sit back and say, “Well this is great. I have friends and an active social life, and I’m happy.” We really need to be willing to look around and see who needs to be reached out to. If you feel comfortable in your friendships and your social sphere, remember that your job isn’t over. Keep an eye out for that newcomer sitting in the back corner. “Gated communities” aren’t true communities–don’t be afraid to expand. You never know what new and wonderful friendships God might have in store…