I pre-ordered Brené Brown’s new book on belonging as soon as I heard about it, both because I respect her work, and even more, because questions about belonging come up consistently for me. I was excited as I opened my Amazon package, eager to begin soaking in her authentic, vulnerable wisdom. In our family of booklovers, when a new book arrives, sometimes it’s a race to see who can get to the furthest page in order to claim first reader’s rights. My husband, Chris won.
We were sitting in our favorite Saturday morning reading spot, when I looked over and saw tears running down his face. “Have you read her high school tryout story yet?” he asked. “No, why?” He handed the book to me. “You have to read this – it’s your story, this book really is for you.”
As I began to read the section Chris indicated, I felt the familiar dread begin, knowing the disappointment and pain that were coming. I didn’t know this story, and yet I knew this story. Have you ever felt that as you read or listened to someone share a story, that sense that somehow you already know what is coming?
I really believe there is truth in the idea that we are all connected at some deep level, that my story is your story, and your story is mine.
My heart and my gut were back in 10th grade. I had been singing in selective choral ensembles for several years already, the previous year we had been chosen to be part of the state honor’s choir. One of the few things I was looking forward to about high school was a chance to earn a spot in the elite Chamber Chorale. It would be the culmination of all my training, in one of the few areas of my life that brought me joy, and a sense that I might finally be good enough to really belong – at least in this group. Even better, it was something my best friend and I were going to do together. Until the tryout results were posted, informing us that she made it, and I didn’t. I remember well the wave of rejection and shame that washed over me that day, knowing I was once again alone.
In the same chapter, Brené describes how her own struggle with belonging was challenged by the words of Maya Angelou.
“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
If I had read these words anytime until about five years ago, I’m pretty sure I would have thrown the book across the room, even given the respect I hold for both of these incredible women. Much of my adult life was spent working hard to connect in relationships and communities where I thought I had the best chance of belonging. The remembered pain of rejection and loneliness fueled my attempts to ensure I would always have some connection, even the most tenuous, everywhere I went – no matter how much I had to suffer to hold onto it. I think some part of me hoped that being connected to others who belonged gave me the best odds of belonging myself – even if by association. I was quite sure freedom couldn’t possibly have anything to do with ‘belonging no place.’
Today, when I read those words, they resonate deep in my soul – someone else also knows this pain, I am not alone, it really can be true. Several years of walking a difficult path trying to navigate loyalty, trust, integrity, betrayal and loss in relationship has affirmed that the price is high.
Last week I experienced affirmation of the other truth – that the reward is great. Standing in a hotel conference room with 21 strangers, I look around, nervously anticipating the prompt for our introductory restorative circle. “Tell us your name, your job title, and what brings you here for this training.” Being at the tail end of this go-around, I soon realize that I am not like all the others – I don’t have a title, I don’t work in education, I am here by myself. This knowing, however, does not undo me. I look up and speak who I am with confidence, because I belong no place and I belong every place.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.