We with this illness fear that there will never be a place of safety and belonging for us. Our experience of belonging seems conditional on our performance. We feel as if we are valued for not making trouble and, if we amputate our hearts and feelings, we minimize our undesirability and make ourselves harmless. Only then can we take up space.
We learn to guess, try to figure our place out, try to earn it somehow. But we never really feel we’ve found it, and it seems as though we could be exiled at any moment. So we learn to grab whatever is offered, thankful for being allowed to stay somewhere, anywhere. This is how we define belonging: the temporary postponement of certain exile.
Some of us try to earn our place by being the clown, or the savior, or just invisible. We clutter our lives with these strategies for belonging, trying through some combination of performance and cleverness to make ourselves look attractive and valuable so that those who “really” belong will let us stay around. Some of us take what seems to be the only other choice: self‑imposed exile. With a good hiding place, we can simply disappear in secret, avoiding the problem altogether. Some of us hide out in our rooms, others in books, some with their pets, others retreat into television or computer games. Some choose to hide in their bodies.
When we are hiding out, waiting sometimes takes the place of belonging: waiting to be discovered, waiting to be asked in, waiting to for it to be safe, Waiting and hiding are strategies of powerlessness.
Our history as a species is filled with conflicts between people seeking a rightful place. Indians with Europeans, blacks with apartheid, Jews with Nazis, women with men, rich with poor, we have been terribly clumsy in allocating a place of safety; and we all seek refuge, a home. Even Jesus was born a refugee, homeless among his own people.
But safety and belonging are not freely granted by the world. Millions of homeless people in our cities testify to the enduring truth of Jesus’s experience. Millions of refugees worldwide reveal our inability or perhaps our unwillingness to provide a homeland for all our children.
Any child in pain claims kinship with all others who live in exile from true belonging. For those of us who have felt emotional exile and isolation in our lives with mental illness/brain disorders, this kinship is difficult to feel, hard to imagine. But it lies of the heart of our Journey,
When we doubt our belonging, we grow desperate, and we learn to grab almost anything–a job, a sexual partner, a gang, a therapist, a lifestyle–and make that our place of belonging. In our desperation we lose both our serenity and our sensitivity to the needs of others.
Yet no other human being can provide that belonging for us. They are not in charge of granting us a place here, our place is already given. Our challenge, our work, is to honor our place in this moment, to breathe deeply, in the unconditional gift of home.
The search for a home is an ancient spiritual metaphor. In the Hebrew story of Exodus, God saw the suffering of the Hebrew slaves and promised them an unconditional “land of milk and honey.” No matter how unfaithful or sacrilegious they proved to be along the way, no matter how much they complained about the difficulty of the journey, the gift of belonging was never taken away. They were not given the land as a reward for their performance, they were given the land because they required a home.
The invitation to belong is made again and again, but we must be able to hear the promise and accept the gift. The journey to our home need not always lead to a separate county or place. Sometimes it leads us to a still, small voice within our souls, a place of belonging as sure and quiet as our very breath. This search for home is essential to our healing because finding a place where they let us stay is not the some as haying a place where we belong.