On Belonging

MAYA ANGELOU: You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…

BILL MOYERS: Do you belong anywhere?

MAYA ANGELOU: I haven’t yet.

BILL MOYERS: Do you belong to anyone?

MAYA ANGELOU: More and more… I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the paradox of our existence — how we are at once individuals with our own unique perspectives; personal bodies and minds with which to process sensory input; free will; and access to creative power. But also, existing as an intrinsic part of a living collective that ranges from the microscopic to the cosmic.

What does it mean for us to hold both of those truths at once? Is it even possible?

To ignore or suppress the individual’s right to explore their existence on their own terms means diminishing the spectacular diversity of thought, feeling and creativity available to humanity. It also leads to things like slavery, genocide, and feeling entitled to force others to do things your way.

On the other hand, to ignore or violate the needs of the communities and the ecosystems we inhabit (because we’re so focused on our individual experience) is making an idol of our Selves and threatens our collective future.

We can’t ignore either of these parts of our existence — because they are both real, and true. Our lives are a dance between these — and if we practice, we get to hold both at the same time with an experience that I can only describe as enlightenment.

That is, being wholly present in Our Life, and aware of The Truth in all its paradoxical glory.

When we solve for problems in our society, we need to take into account that neither of these states of being trumps the other. To diminish and demand submission by the individual *is* destructive to the collective, and vice versa.

Which brings me to a pretty important revelation I had this week with my therapist.

You see, I’ve struggled *mightily* with community for a very long time; feeling like an ‘outsider’ or a square peg in a round hole in almost every communal space I’ve shared during adulthood. Never quite fitting in and wondering why — even among the people I love most — I feel like I don’t really belong.

This week I realized that my craving for community and belonging are based on the hyper-particularized and regulated identity that I grew up with as part of a cult.

Which is to say, I’ve been craving a dysfunctional, controlling relationship to community like the one with which I was raised. I’ve spent years trying to recreate the feeling of belonging that formed my ideas about community from birth — and feeling lost and frustrated this whole time.

I think a very large part of my struggle inside Muslim community was me trying to assimilate as something I am not, and cannot be (for reasons that we can discuss another time), and becoming more and more insecure as the differences between who I am, and who American Muslims are (collectively) continued to show up in sharp relief.

But the truth is that I’m not actually missing community. I have that — in spades! I have a community in my assortment of beautiful, brilliant friends I’ve made (online and off) over the years. I have community with Appamada — my zen group; with my Tai Chi school; with my desi friends; with my Cosmic Clash crew.

If anything, I have way more than my fair share of healthy, vibrant community.

What I have been missing is a thing that isn’t real. A manufactured sense of belonging that comes with believing I was part of an exclusive group of people that is special to God. That sweet, sweet bliss of not having to think, or worry that I may not be doing what’s best — for myself or anyone else. The false ‘harmony’ that comes with suppressing questions and ignoring conflict.

That? Was a lie. It was false community. It was coerced conformity that masqueraded as community, while demanding the sacrifice of my individual needs and true self at the altar of a false god that always acts like a powerful man.

And so, I find myself at peace this fine Friday morning in the month of June.

Because I know now that we are, all of us, astonishingly beautiful in our own way. Tiny universes unto ourselves, bonded together with common elements and the mysterious energy that animates us and gives us an opportunity to dream, ideate and create. But also, as part of a magnificent, amorphous collective of life that has no single purpose — shifting, growing and exploring the universe through our cosmic baby steps of shared knowledge and cooperative action.

Neither of these facets to my existence need to be sacrificed because I belong no place, and every place, all at once.

It’s good to be alive, with you, today.

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