Importance of Belonging 3/31/19

by Richard Bleil

Many years ago, when I was around seven give or take a few years, my best friend was Kevin, and I was his best friend whenever his other friend wasn’t around. He had a sister, as did I. One day, after a circus, my sister and I went to their house. Of course, his better friend was there as well. The five of us decided to play circus. My friend and his better friend climbed on top of a fold-up camper and were the “jaguars”. I tried to climb up, but was abruptly informed that the circus had only two jaguars. My sister and her friend were the “acrobats”, so I tried to join them and were informed that there are only two acrobats. Not knowing what else to do, I was the “clown.” But, the “show” came, the “acrobats” did their bit, and somehow they forgot to let the clown act.

I sat on a porch step and silently cried.

His mother came out to see what was wrong. Suddenly there was another show, and they insisted the “clown” do his act. And the “jaguars” got a phone call about a bank robbery, and they needed the “clown” to bring them to justice. But, it was too late. The clown was retired.

I won’t play the clown anymore.

Unfortunately, this event was the start of a full life of feeling as if I do not belong. In my high school, sports were abundant and the way to fit in, but being the nonathletic geek, I certainly never felt like I belonged. I never even had a date until prom, when I quite literally took a prostitute to prom (but to be fair, I didn’t realize it when I had asked her). In college, as is typical of so many college, it was partying and drinking as the mechanism to belong, but I never drank alcohol or took drugs, focusing instead on my studies. I certainly didn’t belong there. In graduate school, even in a program as geeky as chemistry, as a theoretical chemist I actually did mathematical modeling which set me apart from even the other graduate students. I never felt like I belonged. When I taught, I was the sole chemistry professor at two institutions. In the forensic lab, I was a non-sworn employee surrounded by sworn police officers. As a dean, I was in a middle management position, belonging neither to the faculty or the upper administrative “click”. Even my ex-wife had a knack for being sure that I knew I wasn’t really part of her family.

Are you seeing a pattern?

I cannot begin to tell you the importance of feeling as if you belong. It might be influenced from my own longing to belong, but I’ve noticed that some ethnicities and faiths have this sense of a close-knit group that is very accepting and belonging. The military branches strike me the same way. Today, though, I am estranged from my family, divorced and not dating, with good friends but still feeling a sense of drifting.

I guess I could deal with in the past by burying myself in my work. I tend to be something of a workahlolic, no doubt as a way to get out of my own emotional sense of emptiness. Today, every job application rejection that I get steps on the raw nerve, reminding me that, still, I do not belong.

I find myself thinking to myself that maybe it’s time that I stop looking to continue my career, and just go into some form of semi-retirement, find a place where I feel like I belong.

Today, I still am feeling like that sad little clown sitting on the porch step. I’m wondering how many people are sitting on theirs. There is a distinct difference between living and being alive. I have been living al of my life, but rarely felt alive. Lack of belonging generates and emptiness that is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to describe in words to those who have never felt it.

I’ve never understood the phrase “need”. All my life I’ve been told that I “need” someone. I need air. I need food, and I need water, but a life partner? I can survive without one, so do I “need” love? As humans, it turns out we actually do. The simple act of one person touching the hands of another has been demonstrated to release chemicals that improve mood, the lack of which for an extended time can actually be unhealthy.

When we don’t eat, we do get a sense of emptiness that accompanies the pangs of hunger. If you recall this feeling, especially if for some reason you have been denied food for a time, then you will understand when I say that finally having a large meal not only alleviates the pangs and the feelings of low blood sugar, but also, that feeling of emptiness is suddenly fulfilled as well.

The feeling of not belonging is perhaps not so dissimilar. Keep an eye out for those who might feel as if they do not belong. Don’t try to force them, but let them know that you care, invite them to things but don’t demand, be understanding and let them know that you understand. On the porch, they tried to force me to participate, but it only left me with an instinct to withdraw into myself, a withdrawal that continues today. My defenses are too high for even me to bring down. Don’t let it happen to someone you love.

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