Belongingness Thwarted, Belongingness Fulfilled.
"I just wanted to be one of them." — Opening line of the new film "The Gates of Eternity," spoken by Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh
I'm one of those people who has a great need to feel like I belong. "Who doesn't?" would be a logical response. With tribalism, gang culture and assorted other group phenomena getting a lot of attention in the last few years, there's been a lot of focus on just how essential this is to human beings. I know, tell that to Ted Kaczynski or J.D. Salinger or Garbo. (Hmmmm...all dead or incarcerated. Comedy challenge for you, dear reader: Write a joke with those three walking into a bar. Get back to me.) I just attended something called the Expressive Arts Therapies Summit and learned a new phrase, “belongingness thwarted,” in the context of a presentation on teen suicide. Thwarted belongingness is a vividly self-defining feeling state quite easy to achieve these days. Perhaps it always was, but we're living now. If you don't get into that clique (or get enough clicks) or that club or that college, then what?
I had a strong sense of belonging growing up. My parents were at the center of the in-crowd in our little town. We were "one of them," or at least that's how we perceived it. Looking back on that now, it seems narrow, ridiculous and, in ways, unfortunate. But status is everywhere, and even when a particular status system has no relevance or bearing on the larger world, it can mean absolutely everything to those inhabiting it. Perspective hovers out of reach, becomes irrelevant, relative—all those things that can make someone on a higher stratum be mystified by, minimize, or even dismiss someone else's pain. (My sloppy typing just prompted autocorrect to make that "someone else's sprain." How perfect is that? "Don't be so upset. She looks just fine!" chirps one mother to another whose child is in a wheelchair for life.)
The need to feel like I belong has made me do some extreme things. After being a freelance musician and writer for about two decades, I experienced a very sprainful lull. I'd just come off the road, touring in support of the album Love, Loss & Lunacy, which took me out of the New York loop for the session and editorial work I'd been doing. I wasn’t quite one of them anymore. Sitting alone one day in my East Village apartment, with no obligations or appointments to attend to, it hit me hard that no one anywhere was waiting for me. And of course there was some post-tour financial sprain accompanying all that. Feigning confidence, I told myself, "Things will pick up eventually. They always do. So while you're waiting for that to manifest, why not do some of those New York City things you never do when you live here, like that tour of the UN you've been meaning to take for years." Great idea—innocuous even!
Off I went on the M15 bus up First Avenue on a Tuesday afternoon. I bought my ticket for the tour and took a seat in the visitors' lobby. While I sat there in that iconic building, watching staffers walk by sporting their badges—the ultimate symbol of belonging—an old black and white film about the origins of the UN was looping on a television monitor in front of me. There was footage of FDR, Churchill and Stalin cross-faded with images of war, concentration camps and the construction of the very building where I sat. As I watched the film over and over, something was starting to brew inside me: "I want to work towards something larger than myself. I want to be part of a grand ideal. I want to contribute to human rights and international peace and security. I want to be one of them."
A full-on spell came over me. I was still sitting, but it was as if my arms and hands were stretched out before me and I was locked in an awkward trance-like march towards that monitor, a mantra running through my head: "I must work for the United Nations. I must work for the United Nations." This urgent yearning was so complete that I started telling everyone I knew, "I want to for the United Nations." Who could help me figure it out? I would do just about anything to be there, except maybe clean the bathrooms. Was I really so committed to international peace and security, or just lonely?
Like everything, the UN looks different from a distance, but what an adventure that yearning led to. I did get a job there. It was a weird one, but I got in that door, inside that tall, narrow glass building that stands so symbolically on First Avenue but not. It's officially not the Untied States for that patch of land. So I guess you could say I left the country every day for 9 years to go to work. I left my country every day to feel like I belonged, to be part of that unique, historic organization. (I know, the UN is not all it claims or aims to be or once was. But I can tell you this: There are many people there fully committed and working towards all the original ideals the UN was founded on. It's true.) I did not achieve my romantic dreams of going to other countries on exotic missions—it would be my own music that took me there, fortunately. But I did get that badge. I did get to belong. And I left a lot behind to do it.
No regrets, but what is real belonging and the need for it anyway? With most of us having our basic survival needs met—thank god I don't have to hunt—we're all pretty safe. So if we're waiting for other people to let us in, let us be one of them, let us share their strength and their status, are we by definition not valuing ourselves? Or is all this self-valuing stuff... overvalued?
There was once a bestseller called How To Be Your Own Best Friend. Nice title. But we do need other people to love and approve of us, to want us, to be our best friend. It's not enough to love ourselves—sorry, wouldn't it be nice—but it is a great place to start. And like all fine arts and athletics, it takes practice. So let me go. I don't want to be late for rehearsal. I don't want to keep me waiting. I want to make sure I let me in.