I was 12-years-old when I first felt a pang of not belonging. I stood on the sidewalk at the corner of Drewry and Valleyview with my back to the wind. My chin dipped deep into a woolen scarf which was tied around my neck. My crossed arms held school books tight against my chest–another layer to keep out the biting cold—and my mittened hands were pressed under my arms in search of warmth.
I waited for the school bus with my friend—for this post, I’ll call her Sally. At the bus stop that morning, I considered Sally my very best friend; even though she was a grade, maybe two, ahead of me in school. We shared seats on the bus. We played marbles in the snow. Every Monday evening, I went to her house to watch “The Partridge Family”. We spent hours in our fort in the woods paging through a wallpaper sample book discussing which wallpaper pattern we’d like to paste on our fort walls. We both had crushes on the teen idol of the year, Donny Osmond.
That morning on the corner, I chattered away proposing activities to do after school once we finished homework. Maybe we could put on a play and invite neighborhood friends to come watch it.
I was thinking about what the play would be about, who would act in it, and whether we’d serve refreshments when Sally said, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore. You do baby things.”
For a moment, the cold air seemed less gripping than the cold that took hold of my heart.
The bus came. I climbed on and made my way to our usual seat. Sally walked past and sat somewhere in back.
I sat alone and felt the pain of not belonging.
I have been thinking about our desire to belong since reading news stories about Penn State student Timothy Piazza’s death that describe the humiliating hazing some young men submit to so they can belong to a fraternity. I’m trying to understand the fierce drive to belong that allows individuals to submit to extreme hazing.
We want to belong. I know from experience that not belonging hurts. As a 12-year-old, for a few day, maybe weeks, I felt sad about the end of my friendship.
I didn’t get to hear the older kids’ gossip anymore. I didn’t learn anymore stories about the ninth grade girl who lived in the pink house down the street and how she got impetigo from kissing too many boys.
But I didn’t ask Sally for more information. Like, what would you rather do? Could we do that? I moved on. I found other friends to belong with. They liked to do as she called them: my baby things.
Life worked out. For me.
Occasionally, I saw Sally’s new boyfriend drive his loud car past my house and into her driveway. About four years later, I heard she was pregnant. Soon, she had to start doing real baby things.
Fifteen years passed before I was pregnant with my first child, and I still wasn’t 30.
It might seem that I dodged a bullet that morning on the corner. She cut me out of her life, but maybe her act was kindness–excluding was better than pressuring me into the activities she considered grown up and wanted to pursue.
However, I didn’t move on unscathed.
Years later, I was long into adulthood and grappling with a friendship challenge. I felt excluded by a group of people, but couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I belonged.
I thought it was me. I wasn’t a good friend.
I said to my husband Steve, “What am I doing wrong? If I was a better friend, I’d…”
I listed the qualities of a good friend and compared them with my actions.
To my surprise, I didn’t come up short.
As I thought about the match, I wondered: if I act as a good friend, why don’t I feel like I belong? I remembered that day on the street corner when I was 12. All those years later, I thought about Sally’s words and realized that my 12-year-old mind had interpreted her words to mean that I was not a good friend. I accepted that assessment and the message turned into a misbelief that haunted my friendships and left me with a diminished sense of belonging for a long time.
From my adult vantage point, I could perceive her words a different way. The friendships’ end had been her choice, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t a good friend. With a new, accurate understanding, I shook off the misbelief that had plagued me.
Later that evening, I declared to Steve, “I am a good friend.”
“I think you’re a good friend,” he agreed.
My experience leads me to believe that our awareness of our own value can diminish or enhance our sense of belonging. My sense of belonging was blunted due to my perception of who I was as a friend. But when I accurately perceived my worth, I concluded, I’m a great friend. I listen. I try to help friends who need help. I’m loyal. I’m dependable. I’m fun. I’d like a friend like me.
When I accurately understood my worth, I could belong, or not, on my terms. I didn’t need to scramble to figure out what I needed to do to belong.
I think the willingness to submit to humiliating hazing stems from a distorted view of personal value.
Our culture tells our kids: You are valuable if you wear the right clothes. You are valuable if you excel at the right sports. You are valuable if you land a career that will make you a lot of money.
Kids communicate to each other: you are valuable if you have a lot of Facebook friends or Instagram followers. Or if you go to the right school. Or have the right devices. Or if you can drink a lot of alcohol and brag about it the next day.
We must counter these lies and help kids accurately understand their true value or their sense of healthy belonging will be skewed.
When my brothers were teens, before they left the house, I often heard our Dad say to them, “Remember who you are.”
At the time, I thought, Geesh, his frequent reminders must mean he really think they’re not too bright. But then I had teenage sons of my own.
The truth? Dad’s advice is sound advice for us all: Remember who you are: a person of worth. A person who brings value to belonging.
If you need a reminder of your value, the bible is a great place to look. It’s filled with declarations of our worth.
I love the words in Psalm 139 that give a rich glimpse into our value to our creator God:
For You formed my innermost parts;
You knit me [together] in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks and praise to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was being formed in secret,
And intricately and skillfully formed [as if embroidered with many colors] in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were appointed for me,
When as yet there was not one of them [even taking shape].