When you hear the word Belonging, what comes to mind?
Your family? Your friends? A hobby group? Maybe even a safe space like home, or a special secret spot only you know. Belonging is something we as humans crave, for all sorts of reasons on Maslow’s Pyramid – it is associated with a sense of safety and protection, of acceptance and understanding, and validation and opportunity to grow. Very few of us don’t want to belong somewhere, but it can be hard to describe what it really is, or how we get it.
So what happens when we add just one letter to the end of such a powerful word?
All of a sudden, what was a warm almost ethereal feeling becomes very tangible. We know exactly what this is. Your house, your car, what’s in your handbag. The new thing you bought online. Or those items you stare longingly at in the shop windows… or in your neighbour’s yard. The things you want to possess.
How much difference a letter can make…
One little ‘s’ makes the word belonging go from a concept that makes us think of our place in the world, or the people we love, or where we feel valued and accepted, to an inventory of all the items we do or don’t own. While they feel like two very different words, both concepts denote things that help us identify and solidify our place in the world. In fact, one informs the other.
Even way back when we were “cavemen”, hunting, gathering, surviving… we started to make tools, and keep them. These original belongings are part of what scientists used to differentiate the Australopithecus genus from what was known as the Homo habilis species – long before we got straighter, and taller and looked more like a modern Homo sapien.
Jumping further along our historic timeline, our belongings began to denote where we belonged in society. If we had belongings (humans included), we were of a higher status and often people of leisure, doing little ourselves to earn these belongings - wealthy, powerful, “respected”. Belonging to someone else (or providing labour in any form) defined us as significantly less valuable in the eyes of society, and both our ability and right to have belongings was limited. Though it’s worth commenting that, based on many a modern TV series, the feeling of belonging and all its associated joys of safety and care were perhaps much less common in the bourgeois of any decade, no matter how many belongings they had.
Belonging as a concept probably begins as a child. According to Developmental psychologists, Freud, Erikson and Bowlby being amongst the most well known, our exposure to safety, connection, feedback, knowledge or opportunity helps to form the ways we approach our own identity and our relationships with others in future… our “Belongings” and where we “Belong”.
It's hard to know how to belong nowadays. The capacity to own things in most societies has become enormous, and in many ways much more equally available (though often with strings attached). We also often look at what people have/wear/do to work out who they are and where they belong – as a short cut in a world where we are exposed to sooo many more humans than even 50 years ago, through travel, TV and Film, and the internet. Choosing what to buy, and how to look, and what belongings to display is actually a job in itself nowadays, to help us to be accepted in the place we want to belong- everything from the more obvious brand choices, where we live and what foods we bring for lunch, to some more subtle decisions around the institutions we interact with (schools, shops, work places) that can inform what people think of our belongings. It’s hard work… and much less predictable the more choices we have.
One great example of this belonging/s puzzle is the “mid life crisis” – the moment the rich person sheds their Versace and BMW and starts working in food shelters, or the routine focused person buying a motorbike or travelling the world. In either case, it only takes a change in what we possess to begin to move our place in the world. Of course, the ownership doesn’t lead to a new “home”, but it can at least start the journey to belonging, which would be very hard without the belongings in tow.
I wonder if social media has made this belonging/s dilemma nigh on impossible. Until we started “being ourselves” online, belongings were physical items, and belonging was a place or set of people. There were limitations to what we could own, where we could be, and who could see and interpret either or both.
But today, a single post or comment can become a belonging – something you own that defines you. And this can lead to belonging to any number of groups or places that you have never met or seen. While having more opportunities to belong is NOT itself a concern, there is something about both the inability to relinquish ownership (the perpetuity of anything put on the internet), as well as the limited understanding or control possible with any internet based environment, which creates a very different relationship between our belongings and the places we believe we belong. One that we need to start to navigate, if we want to keep trying to solve the Belonging/s puzzle.
So, here are a few questions to start with..
· What do you consider your prized belongings?
· Where do you feel like you belong?
· How do you share this with the world around you?
· And do you still belong, without your belongings in tow?