For most of my life, I’ve struggled with belonging. I distinctively remember being in 1st grade, six years old, on the playground at the international school I went to when we lived in Belgium, and getting hit by a wave of loneliness. I was on the swings, other kids swinging on either side of me, and I felt like I was about to sail off into the sky by myself, detached from the swing chains. I felt very old, like I’d lived a hundred lifetimes already. I felt…isolated.
That feeling has followed me my whole life. I never quite fit in as myself. If I wanted to “belong,” I had to change somehow. I had to listen to certain music, watch certain movies, and keep my mouth shut about the stuff I cared about. When I got older and more independent, I didn’t bend to peer pressure as much, but in order to feel okay with it, I had to take pride in my loneliness. “I feel this way,” I told myself, “Because I’m special.” That’s a dangerous way to live, because in order to feel joy or connection with others, I had to let go of that whole “special” thing.
I’m over that now. I don’t want to be isolated or lonely. I don’t think that’s what makes me special. But I still don’t feel like I really belong anywhere.
Chris and I have been going to a church lately, and for practically the first time ever, I actually don’t hate going to church. I feel safe there. But it isn’t easy. At one of the services, to celebrate the co-pastor getting her Masters of Divinity, one of her professors spoke. He spoke directly to the congregation, offering advice and encouragement and so on, and I got hit by that wave again. Specifically, a talking wave that said, “You don’t belong here.” It felt really strange, like I was looking in a window, spying on the service. He isn’t talking to me, I thought, because I don’t know anyone here. I’m not a part of this community. That sad little voice added, “And you never will be.”
My instinct is to say that voice is the devil, but I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dry. It’s fear, yes, which doesn’t come from God, but I am sick of identifying every negative thought as a demon hissing in my ear. I’ve lived that belief before, and it is exhausting. I think that voice is six-year old me, fearful, who is counting out all the times I’ve been lonely or rejected, and telling me that’s what will always happen. She doesn’t count all the times that hasn’t happened, though.
So, what do I do? My spiritual director has given me advice for when fear like that comes up, when our past selves try to convince us of something that isn’t true. I reassure six-year old me. I tell her it’s going to be okay. The idea of treating fear with compassion is still new to me. Since I believed every negative thought was a demon, I’m more familiar with going on the attack, like my head is a war zone. The result is always a bloody battlefield, without much peace or hope. I only succeed in traumatizing myself even more. It’ll be different this time.
I’ve been to church since that wave of isolation. I didn’t feel it as strongly this time, because I anticipated it, and I knew how to respond. When the little voice tried telling me, “You don’t belong here,” I knew what to say: “Maybe not yet, but that’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”