True Belonging by Rev. Anthony D. Makar


I want to begin this morning by reflecting on a powerful concept that comes to us from emotional intelligence researcher and author Brené Brown.

The concept is “true belonging.”

“True belonging,” she says, “is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”

To this she adds: “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness – an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared.”

Put these two quotes together and here’s what we have. True belonging is about forming a certain kind of relationship with yourself, and this relationship supports you in doing incredibly hard but valuable things: separating from the crowd so you can stand in the wilderness of your own depths; discovering what is there; coming back to the world changed so that the relationships you form with others are authentic.

No masks. Nothing fake.

This is what I want to talk about today: harnessing the power of true belonging for the work of love and justice. Getting to the world that Taryn wants to live in, wants to meet us in.

Start with separating from the crowd.

The word “crowd” is not meant to be taken literally, as if it’s about a group of people over there or around you. It’s more a symbol of all the voices in your life that have pressured you with expectations to be good, and if you don’t conform, you will lose love. All these voices, of parents and teachers and peers, telling women, telling men, telling all of us how we must be in order to fit in. All the voices of talking heads on screens of some kind, of our society and culture, layer upon layer upon layer—and underneath them all is fear. Fear anchors them. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.

Let’s name this crowd: perfectionism.

Perfectionism wants us to fit in. Be good, in all the ways we need to be, and that’s when we deserve belonging.

Perfectionism tells us that it is our ticket to happiness. It’s been telling you and me that all our lives.

We don’t believe a word of it, and we believe it completely.

We definitely act as if we believe. To fit in, we try to hide our shortcomings from others and as a result we feel fake, hollow, inauthentic. Some shortcomings feel so embarrassing that, to fit in, we try to hide them from ourselves, but they always slip out, and that’s when the shame tortures us, and then we redouble our efforts to be pure. We read this book, we do that training, we are more careful with our language, we donate to some cause, and we think that THIS TIME will do the trick, we think THIS TIME will be the charm, we think that the super embarrassing thing has been permanently banished from our lives.

But it has not. It’s still there.

The crowd insists on purity. But the soft animals of our bodies can’t comply. They/we fail time and time again to fit in.

And we are stressed out, paralyzed, exhausted.

You know I’m taking that phrase from a Mary Oliver poem, right? “Soft animals of our bodies”—to me the imagery suggests innocence, as well as independence from what our conscious, rational minds might want.

The soft animals of our bodies are what they are because, from before our minds developed the capacity to use words or to reason, we have been conditioned to take on certain biases, to pay attention to some things and to ignore others, to have certain feelings, attitudes, and assumptions.

Sometimes we can literally see this truth verified, in the behavior of young children. Sharon Olds’ poem, “Rite of Passage” captures the militarism of boys.

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

There it is: The soft animal bodies of these boys have been formed in a patriarchal culture that affirms violence, and perhaps there’s a genetic factor as well.

The crowd insists on perfection but, whether by nature or nurture—one or the other or both,—the -ism of militarism is there in boys and men.  Whether we want it or not.

Or what about a different –ism. We see it in white and black children when they are given a choice of which doll to pick. The white child doesn’t pick the black doll because, she says, “It’s bad.” Why bad? The white child goes on to say something that she would probably never admit later on, as an adult: “Because the doll is black.”

That white child’s got an –ism in her. That –ism will be in her for life. She didn’t put it there. She didn’t give birth to herself. She didn’t choose the social and cultural influences that put it in her. She doesn’t have the power. None of us do.

Including the black child who looks at the exact same black doll and says the exact same thing.

The –ism of racism is in us, and we didn’t put it there, and there it is.

We are not pure.

Nor are our feelings.

UUCA member Nina West tells of a time years ago when she lived in Nashville, in a mixed race neighborhood that had not yet re-gentrified. “During that time,” she says, “I attended Tennessee State University…. I was the minority as a white person attending a predominately black college. At the time, I was told by white people that it was dangerous for me to go there, that I was in danger. I even had one white person (a co-worker at my part-time job) tell me that if I was going to attend school there I needed to carry a gun because of the crime in that part of town.” Nina goes on to say, “I did not carry a gun and I did not experience any problem being in that neighborhood nor on the campus of Tennessee State.”

Now, no one can feel good about crime, or the threat of crime. I know what I’m talking about—just a short while ago my home was burglarized and a lot of stuff got stolen and I feel violated to the extreme. But Nina’s story provokes us to wonder. When her friends had all the strong feelings they had about crime at Tennessee State University and how she needed to protect herself, to what degree were the feelings inflamed and distorted by the –isms swimming around in their hearts?

You have to ask this. You have to, when you know that there are –isms in us and we didn’t put them there but they are there anyway, which means we are not and can never be pure.

Militarism. Racism. Sexism. Ableism. Classism. Misogyny. Transphobia. Homophobia. Fatphobia. Xenophobia.

They are there. The –isms.

Can we deal with them in ways that don’t end up with us stressed out, paralyzed, or exhausted?

As Brené Brown would say, just stand in this wilderness. This wilderness, which is dangerous and untamed and unpredictable and it is you. Stand in it. Brave space. Just do that.

Let the perfectionism of the crowd go. Let go. Embrace your impurity, which is your authenticity. Allow for true belonging in this community that wants to be a brave space of transformation.

“In some ways,” says activist Courtney Martin, speaking of the –ism of racism but it could be about any –ism, it’s “a frightening reality to reckon with. But in another, it’s freeing. If there is no chance of escaping my own internal racism, then I don’t have to work so damn hard all the time to prove just how not-racist I am. Instead, I can spend energy doing things that are much more liberating — particularly building my resilience around confronting my own racism when it surfaces and building relationships with people who will call me out on my racism and support me in confronting it.”

We just don’t allow ourselves to feel shocked and ashamed when the –isms slip out. That’s such a waste of emotional energy and a prime cause of fragility. We don’t get defensive. We don’t go, What? Me? Racism? Sexism? Classism? NEVER!!!!!

Give me a break.

BEING GOOD OR BAD IS NOT RELEVANT.

BEING GOOD OR BAD IS NOT RELEVANT!

What is relevant is learning all we can about the people we’ve been trained all our lives to be insensitive towards and ignorant about. What is relevant is listening. What is relevant is making amends when an –ism slips out, as it so often will, and if we’re lucky enough to be called on it.

What’s relevant is doing our part to make the world a better place for women, for people of color, for immigrants, for LGBT people, for people who are disabled—for all these and others that the status quo oppresses and makes no room for.

UUCA member Nancy Bartlett says, “During town meetings prior to our vote adopting the ARAOMC resolution [back in May 2016], I heard folks several times express fear that they would be called out and ‘corrected’ for using certain language or terms.  They said UUCA was a place they came to feel safe and calm and not to be policed.  I expressed my surprise, saying something like ‘Do you really feel that way?  Because I count on this community to tell me if I am using hurtful or God forbid racist terms. I want to know. I want to learn. I do not want to be hurting or insulting to other people.  And I count on you to help me.’”

And then Nancy says, “Why would we expect folks to tell us about spinach on our teeth or an open fly, but not tell us our behavior or language is damaging?”

This is not just “fitting in.” This is true belonging.

“I count on you to help me.”

“I want to know. I want to learn.”

Militarism. Racism. Sexism. Ableism. Classism. Misogyny. Transphobia. Homophobia. Fatphobia. Xenophobia. All these –isms and more, which are in us, and we did not choose it, they are just there.

We stand in the wilderness of this. We must stop struggling and accept, with humility and with compassion.

No one loses love when they are vulnerable and open about their authentic self which is not perfect, which is impure, but it is you.

Everyone in this room is worthy.

“I want to know. I want to learn.”

This is what makes for friendships that change the world.