“Familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color.”
Through the silent whispers, the age-old rustle of leaves, and within the rhythmic lullabies of the ocean waves, there is a story written - a story of a quest, a journey. This is a story of a primordial longing that unites us all - a tale of the innate human yearning for familiarity and belonging. It is the siren song that sings to us of home, comfort, and the unspoken ties that bind our hearts to places and people.
Familiarity, brushed aside, is the mundane backdrop to the grand opera of life. It is, in truth, a misunderstood virtue. It is the warm glow of the hearth that soothes our restless spirits, the comforting cadence of a beloved voice that makes the world seem less daunting, the familiar scent of home that can bring tears to a wanderer's eyes. A familiar scent of your partner’s cologne. A sound that reminds you of your childhood. It is in these familiar things, often overlooked in our chase for novelty, that we find our true selves.
Belonging is a concept frequently left under-practiced, its significance eclipsed by a society that romanticizes individualism and constant motion. The modern narrative places so much importance on the pleasure of adventure, of uncharted paths and exciting voyages, over the quiet joy of belonging. It paints a picture where everyone's favorite hobby is travel, the ceaseless pursuit of the new, the unknown. It is a narrative that, while appealing, overlooks the profound power of belonging.
The principles of family, community, and tradition are not just historical artifacts but timeless truths that continue to seed a sense of belonging. Throughout life, these are the threads that lend strength and vibrancy, weaving us into a whole.
Family is the first school of familiarity and belonging, the nurturing cocoon where we are able to learn to recognize, understand, and appreciate the beauty of the familiar. Community is the wider circle that expands our sense of belonging, connecting us to others through shared experiences, values, and aspirations. Tradition, then, is the bridge that spans across time, linking us to our roots and giving us a sense of continuity and permanence.
The Ancient Roots of Belonging: How did traditional societies place a paramount emphasis on belonging, and why was it a necessity for their survival?
The concept of belonging is not a modern invention but a fundamental part of our shared human heritage. The ancient roots of belonging are intertwined with the birth of civilization itself, deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness and shaping our evolutionary path.
The murmurings of prehistoric cave paintings, the echoes of ancient epics, and the enduring legacy of ancestral myths all tell a tale of our ancestors' inherent understanding of belonging. They lived in an era when the world was vast and uncharted, a daunting expanse full of unknowns. They were able to find solace, strength, and identity in their tribes, their kinship ties, and their shared narratives.
In the heart of the Kalahari Desert, where the San people have resided for over 20,000 years. As one of the oldest surviving indigenous groups in the world, their story is a glimpse into the ancient practices of belonging.
The San people's cave paintings, some dating back to 26,000 years ago, are more than some sort of artistic expressions; they are a narrative of kinship, community, and survival. These paintings, which have been found extensively at sites such as Tsodilo Hills in Botswana, depict scenes of communal hunts, dances, and rituals, showing how deeply their lives were entwined as a community.
Unlike our modern individualistic societies, the San people lived in close-knit groups where the concept of belonging was woven into the fabric of everyday life. Their societal structure was egalitarian; everyone contributed to the group's survival and wellbeing, and everyone shared in the group's resources. There was no place for hoarding or undue personal accumulation. Instead, sharing and cooperation were the norm.
Anthropologists and historians alike have taken the time to observe traditional societies placing a paramount emphasis on the collective over the individual. In these societies, belonging was not a luxury but a necessity - a prerequisite for survival in a harsh and unpredictable world. The community was a fortress against external threats, a shared repository of knowledge and wisdom, and an environment that fostered social and emotional growth.
In 1943, renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow presented a theory that is now a cornerstone of modern psychology: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This theory suggests that belongingness and love needs, which encompass friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connection, are fundamental human requirements, just above physiological and safety needs.
In 2015 it was found that social connections not only contribute to our psychological well-being but also have a significant impact on physical health. Social isolation was associated with an increased risk of inflammation at the level associated with chronic diseases. This finding shows just how our physical health is entwined with our sense of belonging and community.
Anthropologists have observed that traditional societies have lower rates of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. A study in 2018, comparing Western societies with a traditional society in Uganda, found significantly lower levels of depression in the Ugandan participants. The researchers linked this difference to the close-knit, communal nature of Ugandan society, highlighting the mental health benefits of a strong sense of belonging.
Each member has always had a role to play, a purpose to fulfill within the community, and this imbued them with a deep sense of belonging. The hunter did not just hunt for himself but for his tribe. The gatherer did not forage for her sustenance alone but for the nourishment of her kin. The elder did not hoard wisdom for personal gain but shared it for the benefit of their community. These interdependencies created a societal fabric where every thread was vital and valued, where the whole was indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
An analysis of 166 societies worldwide conducted by anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember, found that societies where food was shared widely were more likely to survive times of scarcity, highlighting the practical benefits of interdependencies.
Traditions, too, played a crucial role in fostering this sense of belonging. Rituals, ceremonies, and customs were the rhythmic heartbeat of these societies, marking the passage of time, celebrating shared victories, and mourning communal losses. They served as a constant reminder of the collective identity, reinforcing the bonds of belonging and continuity.
Such societies, bound by the ties of familiarity and belonging have time and time again been proven to be remarkably resilient. Their collective ethos had made them able to navigate the trials and tribulations of their era, from environmental challenges to conflicts with neighboring tribes. It has allowed them to pass on their experiences from one generation to the next, ensuring their survival and evolution.
The Higher Truth: How do spiritual traditions such as Christian sacraments and metaphors, such as the Good Shepherd, offer a sense of profound familiarity and belonging that transcends the physical world and connect us with a higher truth?
In the realm of the spiritual, the quest for familiarity has a profound significance, transcending all confines of the physical world and seeking to align with a higher truth. This longing for familiarity is not just a desire for comfort or security, but also a reflection of the soul's yearning to connect with the Divine.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says,
"My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me"
- (John 10:27)
This metaphor of the Good Shepherd speaks to the deep familiarity that exists between God and His followers. It is a familiarity born out of trust, faith, and love, establishing a spiritual connection that is profound in its endurance.
The sacraments in Christian tradition are familiar rituals that embody spiritual truths. The Eucharist, for instance, offers a sense of profound familiarity and belonging. Through the act of sharing in the body and blood of Christ, believers are united not just with each other, but with Christ Himself. This shared ritual extends beyond the temporal and into the eternal.
These spiritual traditions remind us that the longing for familiarity is a universal yearning, deeply ingrained within the human soul. It is a reflection of our desire for connection, not just with each other, but with a higher truth that transcends our physical existence. In this spiritual familiarity, we find a profound sense of belonging - a reminder that we are, in the words of the Christian hymn,
'no longer strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God'
- (Ephesians 2:19)
A Divine Homesickness: Why do we feel a sense of longing for a spiritual 'home,' and what is the significance of this longing in our lives?
This video I saw on tiktok captures a profound truth about the human condition: our souls carry within them some sort of longing for 'home,' a place where we felt understood, loved, and secure.
The sentiment encapsulated in this shared moment transcends age, culture, or status. It's a universal human experience deeply rooted in our psychological makeup. Developmental psychologists emphasize the formative influence of our early home environment in shaping our sense of self and our perception of the world. The experiences, relationships, and memories associated with our childhood home are psychological anchors, providing a sense of continuity and stability as we navigate the uncertain waters of life.
In my eyes, just as our childhood home serves as a symbol of security and love, our soul seeks a spiritual 'home' where it can experience a sense of unity and divine love. This longing is a sacred echo, a divine homesickness, calling us to return to our spiritual roots, to find our true home in the infinite.
The Melodies of Longing: How do we reconcile our soul's deep-seated yearning for familiarity and belonging? And what are the costs of ignoring this yearning, of constantly uprooting ourselves and disconnecting from the places and people that shaped us?
Our souls hum to the tune of an unfulfilled longing, a yearning for a place we know not where, a sense of familiarity and belonging we seem to have misplaced. Our music, our media, our movies - they are the mirrors reflecting this longing, our collective search for 'home.'
Pop culture is rife with this theme of nostalgia and longing. The airwaves echo with songs that touch upon this yearning, their melodies like a siren's call, reaching into the depths of our hearts and resonating with our soul's quiet lament. They remind us of a past we can barely remember, a feeling we can't quite grasp, yet it stirs within us emotions as profound as they are elusive.
Take, for instance, the enduring popularity of songs like Simon & Garfunkel's 'Take me', or the Beatles' 'Yesterday'. These songs, and countless others like them, speak to a shared human experience - a search for a past that seems somehow purer, simpler, and more authentic. They remind us of a place or a time where we felt truly at home.
But why, in a world where we have more than we've ever had, where everything is seemingly at our fingertips, do we still feel this sense of 'missing'? Why, amidst the abundance, do we still feel a sense of lack?
This conundrum points to one important truth: the yearning we feel is not for material possessions or external achievements but for something deeper, more profound. It is a yearning that springs from our soul, a longing for connection, for authenticity, for a sense of belonging that transcends the temporal and touches upon the eternal.
Our modern world, with its relentless pursuit of the new and the novel ends up distracting us from this truth. We are caught up in a whirlwind of shiny purchases and fleeting pleasures, mistaking them for the fulfillment we seek. But during that, any time you get alone and take a breath, beneath the noise and the clamor, our soul knows. It recognizes the hollowness of these pursuits, the transient nature of these pleasures.
In our world, the hustle and bustle of the big city calls to us. We are lured by the bright lights, the opportunities, and the promise of a better life. We pack our bags, say our goodbyes, and set off in search of adventure and success. I’ve been there. Packed up everything and started over in a city that I was unfamiliar with. But in that chase of pursuits, I became aware of the price I was paying for this constant motion, this disconnect from the familiar.
Settling in big cities has become the norm, so much so that those who choose to stay in their hometowns are often seen as the outliers. We’ve been told that to succeed, to thrive, we must leave behind the familiar and chase after the new and the exciting. We convince ourselves that this is the only path to happiness, fulfillment, and success.
According to a report, more than half of the world's population now lives in urban areas, and this number is expected to grow to nearly 80 percent by 2050. This means that millions of people are leaving their hometowns in search of new opportunities and a better life in the city. In the United States alone, over 80 percent of the population now lives in urban areas, a dramatic shift from just a century ago when the majority lived in rural areas.
But what is the true cost of this disconnection? What is the price we pay for constantly uprooting ourselves, leaving behind the people, places, and memories that formed us?
The answer lies in the impact on our soul. The human soul yearns for familiarity, for a sense of belonging, and a connection to our past. Moving away from the places and people that shaped us can create a sense of loss, a feeling of displacement, and a disconnection from our roots.
In this hustle and bustle of the city, it is easy to lose ourselves, to disconnect from our soul, to forget the values and traditions that gave our life meaning. We forget the joys and comforts of a slower, more meaningful life. In this race, we risk losing the essence of who we are and the things that truly matter in life.
The frenetic pace of city life can take a toll on our mental health. A study found that people living in urban areas are more likely to experience mental health issues than those in rural areas. The constant noise, pollution, and stress of city living can create a sense of dissonance and disconnect from the world around us.
I have a friend who works as a photographer on a cruise ship, and every six months, she sets sail. While she loves the excitement and the thrill of exploring new places, there's one thing that she struggles with every time she comes back home - the feeling of displacement and disconnection.
Every time she returns from her six-month contract, she feels like she stood still in time. But while she was away, life went on back home, and people have moved on with their lives. They had started new jobs, gotten married, had kids, and created new memories without her.
And yet, when she returns, everything feels the same. The streets are familiar, the houses are unchanged, and the people are still there. It's as if time had stood still, and yet, home no longer feels like home.
It's a paradox of sorts - the feeling of belonging and familiarity that we associate with home is not dependent on the physical space itself but on the memories, the relationships, and the experiences that we associate with it. And when we're away, these bonds can start to fray, and the connection can feel tenuous at best.
As my friend talked about this, I couldn't help but feel a pang of empathy. I started to imagine the feeling of coming back to a place that was supposed to be home, and yet, felt like a stranger in a familiar land.
When I returned from my journey that I mentioned early, so much had changed. My dad had gotten sick, my sister had a job, my brother had moved out. People got married, people broke up and everyone had just kept going even without me being here.
It was a reminder of the impermanence of life, the fleeting nature of our experiences, and the importance of cherishing the moments we have with the people and places that matter to us.
But even in the midst of this entire paradox, I was finding solace in the fact that home remains home, even if it's not quite the same. It's still a place where I could find refuge, comfort, and the familiarity of the past. And perhaps, in the end, that's all that really matters - the knowledge that home, like life itself, is not static but ever-changing, and yet, it remains a constant source of comfort and belonging.
Find Your Way Home: In a rapidly changing world, how can a return to traditional structures such as family, community, and shared traditions help us find a sense of belonging and navigate through the crises of disconnection and displacement?
The rapid pace of societal changes, the displacement brought about by globalization, and the growing disconnection in our hyper-connected world have precipitated a crisis of belonging, leaving people feeling isolated and alienated.
The 21st century has seen an unprecedented movement of people across the globe. According to a report, there are 281 million international migrants worldwide, a figure that has nearly doubled in the past two decades. This mass migration, driven by economic, political, and environmental factors, has led to a sense of displacement.
Beyond moving, the rapid technological advancements and societal changes have also caused a form of cultural displacement. Traditional societal structures and values are being challenged and redefined, leading to a collective uncertainty about our place in the world.
As we grapple with this crisis of belonging, there’s a compelling solution: a return to traditional structures. The family unit, community bonds, and shared traditions form a healthy society. These structures are a sense of continuity and stability in the ceaseless change of our modern world.
Scientific research supports this perspective. A study in 2014 found that strong family ties and community connections were associated with better mental health outcomes. Similarly, a 2019 study found that participation in communal religious activities was associated with greater life satisfaction and lower levels of stress and depression.
Here are a few practical ways that we can renew our focus on familiarity and belonging:
- Invest in our relationships: Instead of chasing after the next shiny pursuit, take the time to invest in the relationships that matter most. Spend quality time with loved ones, make time for shared experiences, and prioritize the people that bring us joy and connection.
- Cherish tradition and values: Our traditions and values serve as a powerful anchor, providing a sense of continuity and stability amidst the chaos of life. Take the time to honor the traditions that have shaped us, and to pass them on to future generations.
- Seek out community: Community is the cornerstone of a sense of belonging. Whether it's through religious or spiritual organizations, local groups, or social networks, seek out opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals and find a sense of purpose and belonging.
As the great poet Maya Angelou once said,
"The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned."
Let us return to this safe place, this place of familiarity and belonging, and let us find our way back home. It is in this place that we will find the grounding and the sense of purpose that we need to navigate through our soul’s journey. It is in this place that we will find the connection and the community that we used to thrive on.