Belonging or Fitting In
A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon
Rev. Greg Martin – February 5, 2017
Our theme for this month of February is belonging, that innate human desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. This morning as we focus on fitting in or belonging I also wanted to mention that throughout this month we’ll be looking a little bit at some of the ways that sometimes people find it hard to belong. It’s not always easy, and so we’ll be hearing from one of our members next week, Dawn Bellinger, who is a survivor of sexual assault and telling us a little bit about her story, helping us think about what does it mean to share belongingness.
On the 19th this month our anti-racism task force will be helping us explore some things around what are known as microaggressions, those often daily little attacks that oftentimes people of color and others experience which makes it hard to feel like you belong. But if we all become more conscious of those things perhaps we can be a place of deeper belonging for everyone.
And then at the end of the month our youth group will be leading us in worship. [Note: This date has since been changed.] Helping us explore some things like mental illness and disabilities and what it means to be courageous individuals. I think they too will help us get a deeper sense of what everyone needs to belong.
This morning, fitting in or belonging.
I grew up in ancient times. As I was growing up, well let me put it this way, this was before Netflix, this was before even VCRs. This was ancient times in which you had to rely on basically three stations on your television to broadcast everything you wanted to watch, unless you were willing to pay to go to the movies. And in those days, so different from today, there were certain TV shows that only came around once a year, once a year! I remember watching “The Little Mermaid” endlessly when my daughters were small; I mean endlessly. Not only did they have every word of the songs memorized, they had the whole movie memorized. I had the whole movie memorized. I can still quote those lines to you.
Today, oh my, the choices are incredible. At our very fingertips on our phones, on our watches even, you can watch movies at your discretion. But in ancient times when I was growing up, some things only came around once a year, like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, or any of those shows. But the one that was I think some ways the most remarkable was called “The Wizard of Oz”. A movie made long before I was born, a movie made when my parents were children. It was a movie especially noted because it began in black and white like almost all movies did in those days, and then part way through it turned into the magic of color. I remember my mother describing when she saw that at the theater sometime in the late 1930s when it was released, and just the wonder of that transformation into living color of all things. In my childhood though, what I remember most about that movie was the star. A young woman, gorgeous young woman by the name of Judy Garland, and I looked forward to every year when you gathered around the TV set with your family that one night of the year when Wizard of Oz was broadcast, with the bowls of popcorn and whatever else you had with you, and there she was, singing away, yearning, that amazing song, “Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue”. And you could feel the lilt in her voice, the longing in her voice because you knew where she lived out there in the middle of the plains of Kansas she was missing something. Oh, the longing, the desire in her voice for that land beyond the rainbow where she too would belong and know love. It was such a powerful moment. I was in love with Judy Garland. Had I ever made that declaration out loud everyone would have known at that point that I was gay. But the truth is, she was so gorgeous, and I loved the singing and how she touched the core of my being with singing that song. At that time when I was a child, Judy Garland wasn’t that young teenage girl any more, that’s for sure, and I thought even though there was that huge age difference between us, oh Judy, Judy, you would have given up the drugs, the booze, you would have left it all behind because I would have been willing to love you. Judy, you could have had a different future. I felt that longing because you know, we all know that longing, that yearning in our lives.
The word itself, belonging is mostly that word “longing”, is it not? Being able to be in a community with others where it feels like we really belong, are included. Be-longing, the longing to “be”, not just to fit in, but to be our full selves and still be embraced for who we are no matter what.
Brené Brown1 asked a group of eighth graders, “What’s the difference between fitting in and belonging?”, and she says that they nailed the definition. Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you really want to be, but they don’t really care one way or the other. Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.
She says it doesn’t matter what school she goes to, middle or high school students around the country understand how this works. They know as do the rest of us. One of the things she says is that often times those same middle schoolers and high schoolers often talk about the heartache of not feeling like they have a sense of belonging in the various places that they inhabit, whether it’s at school or oftentimes she says most painfully at home. She said, “The first time I asked eighth graders to come up with the definitions, one student said not belonging at school is really hard, but it’s nothing compared to what it feels like when you don’t belong at home.”
When I asked them, she says, what they meant, they used these examples: Not living up to your parents’ expectations, not being as cool or popular as your parents want you to be, not being as smart as your parents, not being good at the same things your parents were good at. Your parents being embarrassed because you don’t have enough friends, or you’re not an athlete or a cheerleader; your parents not liking who you are and what you like to do; when your parents don’t pay attention in your life.
Belonging, how deeply, at whatever age, we long, we yearn to belong. Well I think part of what family can be, what church can be, is helping us gain that unconditional sense of belonging despite our vulnerabilities, or rather not despite our vulnerabilities but because of them, having that sense that we’re still a part of everything, and yet it’s hard to come by.
Brown says that when her daughter was in fourth grade — her name is Ellen — she came home from school one day bursting into tears as soon as she shut the front door and then ran up to her room. “I immediately followed, knelt down in front of her and asked her what was wrong. Through the sniffles she said, ‘I’m so tired of being the other, I’m sick of it.’ I didn’t understand so I asked her to explain what she meant by the other. ‘We play soccer every day at recess. Two popular kids are the captains, and they pick the teams. The first captain says, ‘I’ll take Suzy, John, Pete, Robin and Jake.’ The second captain says, ‘I’ll take Andrew, Steve, Katie and Sue, and we can split the others.’ Every single day I am one of the others. I never get to be named.’” Oh, one of those moments as a parent. She says, “My heart sank. She was sitting on the edge of her bed with her head in her hands, and I was so concerned when I followed her into the room that I hadn’t even flipped on the light switch. I couldn’t stand the vulnerability of seeing her sitting in the dark crying, so I walked over to the light. It was divine intervention perhaps the act of starting to turn on the lights to alleviate my discomfort made me think of my favorite quote about darkness and compassion from Pema Chödrön, who writes, ‘Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.’ I left the light turned off and walked back to sit with Ellen in the literal and emotional dark. I put my arm around her shoulder and said, ‘I know what it’s like to be the other.’ She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and said, ‘Oh no, you don’t, you’re really popular.’ I explained that I really do know what it feels like. I told her, ‘When I feel like the other I get angry and hurt, and I mostly feel small and lonely. I don’t need to be popular but I want people to recognize me and treat me like I matter, like I belong.’ She couldn’t believe it, ‘You do know. That’s exactly how I feel!’ We snuggled on the bed and she told me about her recess experiences and I told her about some of my experiences in school when otherness was both powerful and painful.
About two weeks later we were both at home when the mail arrived. I ran to the door with great anticipation, Brené says. I was scheduled to speak at a star-studded event and I was dying to see the publicity poster. Seems weird now, but I was so excited at the idea of seeing my photo next to the pictures of the movie stars. I sat down on the couch with the poster. I unrolled it and I started scanning, like a mad woman. Just as I was doing this Ellen walked in and said, ‘Cool, is that your poster? Let me see!’ She walked over to the couch. She could tell my mood had changed from anticipation to disappointment. ‘What’s wrong, Mom?’ I patted the couch and she sat down next to me. I held the poster open and she traced the pictures with her finger. ‘ I don’t see you, where are you?’ I pointed to a line on the poster under the celebrity photos that said “And Others”. Ellen leaned back against the sofa cushions, put her head on my shoulder, and said, ‘Oh, Mom, I think you’re the others. I’m sorry.’ I didn’t reply right away. I was feeling small, both because there was no picture, and for caring that there was no picture. Ellen leaned forward, looked at me and said, ‘I know what that feels like, Mom. When I am the other I feel hurt and small and lonely. We all want to matter and belong.’ It turned out to be one of the best moments of my life,” she said. We may not always have a sense of belonging on the recess playground or at a big fancy conference, but in the moments when we know that we belong where it matters most, at home, or in a fellowship perhaps like this, is when it matters.
Belonging takes a number of things. We’ll be exploring those as we go along. I want us to think very quickly about three of them. Belonging, so that each of us know that we matter, means that our gifts, those unique things about us–our skills, our abilities, sometimes those natural things, sometimes things that are acquired–oh, they need to be named and valued and appreciated. We need opportunities too to share those gifts, that people see us for who we are and what we can be, and we need a spirit both from those who seek to cultivate those gifts in us and from ourselves we need that spirit of generosity, that there is that sense that we want to share from who we are and what we have because we do matter. And indeed when we do that, there is enough. Whatever it is that needs to happen or that we need to do together can happen because all that we need is already present. If we would be but generous, knowing that our gifts matter, and we need a sense of accountability to one another that because we do matter to each other we’re paying attention to each other; we are reaching out and caring in compassionate ways. Because we are equals, right, we know our own darkness and so therefore we can reach out to others in the midst of rough times. We also though need some reminders like those words of our Covenant of Right Relations and other ways that we covenant together, like through that new mission statement that we’re going to read together in just a few moments, and ways of saying we promise to each other certain ways that we will behave to each other. And when we fail we will begin again, because we are not alone. We have each other.
Oh, belonging; belonging to being. Belonging to being together, because we matter, and we are not alone. Indeed this can be a place where we all can belong.
1 Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. 2012. (Available in multiple formats. For more information about her work, see her website at http://brenebrown.com/.)