We Need to be Missed?

By Nancy Lincoln Reynolds

“To be included, you just need to be present. To belong, you need to be missed.” This quote from John Swinton, a Scottish-American journalist in the 1800s, resonates with anyone who has attempted to become a part of an existing group of people and found the welcome less than immediate or satisfying. For Swinton, his role as chief editorial writer for the New York Times in the 1860s gained him acclaim and popularity while his crusade against the labor system in America alienated him from many in conservative society. Ironically, his efforts were aimed at fair treatment and inclusion of “outsiders” in the workforce. His attempts were somewhat successful from a legal perspective, but had little impact upon their personal sense of belonging.

“Belonging” was named by Abraham Maslow in 1943 as the third aspect of development in human growth. After basic physical requirements for survival and essential security needs are met, we long for connection and love from one or more people. These provide us with acceptance and help us feel valued and worthwhile.  Only then are we able to face the world with good self esteem and confidence. Our motivation to keep going and keep growing is tied to belonging to larger community beyond ourselves.

In my family we continue a tradition begun by my son many Summers ago on our annual extended family vacation. Several days into the trip, while planning the day’s activities, he declared, “Today is ‘everyone go with your own kind’ day!” There was instant laughter followed by confusion. Who were my “own kind”? Sisters, siblings, nuclear family, gender, political or religious affiliations, interests came to mind. So many possibilities emerge when the question is posed about where and with whom one belongs.

Being able to claim a place where one feels truly “at home” is critical to our happiness. We long to be included, not only by invitation but by a welcoming, unconditional love. To belong to one or more “tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights” (Marina Keegan) influence how we face life’s challenges. Knowing that our absence would be noticed and, in fact, change the dynamics and experience of the group encourages us to keep going. It confirms that we are important to others. Keegan, an author and playwright whose death at 22 belied her mature perspective on living, suggested that the opposite of loneliness might be belonging. Belonging means that we have a person or people who we may pull around us like coverlets of warmth when life feels cold and uncaring.

Recent research studies in our area suggest that young people especially need to feel like they belong. Some suggest that anxiety, depression and loneliness are direct results of feeling like an outsider. Social psychologist Gregory Walton warns that not feeling like one belongs may also cause us to be less motivated and less able to cope with obstacles in life. When absent early in life, there may be difficulty in establishing the very coping skill we need:  forming and maintaining close relationships. Belonging can be fulfilled by one person or by many. They must be people and/or places with whom a person can feel known and able to share individual stories without judgment and disapproval. The inevitable wrestling with depression, anxiety and self-harm may be positively altered by these relationships offering a sense of belonging.  Regardless of whom you choose to claim as “your own kind,” the choice is essential for personal identity and happiness.

The need to be known, accepted and to belong is true at any age. We all need to know that we are not alone and that there are and have been others who are going through whatever we are experiencing. As we grow older, belonging takes on a different meaning than it did when we were young. We begin to reflect upon where and who we have been and where and who we will be next. Depending upon age, this may involve focusing energy upon realizing delayed efforts to “get it right,” seeking to be productive rather than stagnant. It may mean making a contribution that confirms belonging by giving back. This could be in the context of family, professional service or just where we live. Eventually, at the end of life, belonging may be satisfied by the awareness of having had a place here on earth. Religious traditions would encourage ultimate awareness of not just “who” we are, but “whose” we are. “To whom do you belong?” becomes the question. Belonging may simply mean an awareness of legacy, which is perhaps why story-telling becomes so important later in life.

Ironically, or perhaps not so much so, when we cease to exist, when we die, and find belonging elsewhere, the legacies of belonging will often be included in obituaries that remember that which connected us to others. Families that survive us are named along with loyalties and commitments to work and charities, causes and service organizations, places of worship. An obituary is a list of belonging, followed by the assurance that the subject was not just included but will be missed.

Nancy is the associate pastor of Woods Presbyterian Church in Severna Park and can be contacted at [email protected]

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