The Art of Belonging
by Jennifer Paros
“Everyone is the same and unique.” -- Michael Neill
youngest son, who has been having a challenging time in school, told
me he wants to “fit in.”
I flinched at the expression, having always seen fitting in
as trying to pretzel oneself to match and blend with external
expectations. But soon I felt compelled to take another look at the
someone who writes, I’ve thought fitting in was
counterproductive to originality and authentic expression. If we
think the goal is to morph our work to fit in– to a genre, a
market, a publishing house or a particular audience, it seems likely
to lead us away from our unique gifts. But there’s another way to
think about fitting in – not so much as something to do, but
rather as a truth to be remembered.
was a young teen, while talking with my father in confidence I
asked, “How do you be yourself out in the world?”
spent a couple years pulled back into the bowels of my bedroom,
suffering with thoughts of inadequacy and self-consciousness. I
wanted to be who I knew myself to be and felt that the world, with
its wide judging eyes, made it nearly impossible for me to relax
enough to be true to myself “out there.”
I wasn’t asking the gods to help me “fit in” per se, my request
wasn’t dissimilar from my son’s. I wanted to be who I was
comfortably in the world. And in order to be comfortable, I was
going to have to come to realize that I, like everyone else, already
original Grimm’s Cinderella, the evil stepmother
oversees the ugly stepsisters’ attempts to fit their feet into the
glass slipper. And in the true nature of motherly love, she
encourages one to cut off a toe and the other to slice off a bit of
heel in order to fit their too-large feet into the pump. It’s an
ugly display but one that speaks to the ego’s ideas of how to fit
in in order to get what it thinks it wants. Manipulation,
control, denying the true self - these are the mental schemes
employed by a desperate personality to try and be something
desirable to others. It’s an outside-in approach to gaining our
place in the world, a place that is actually ours inherently.
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2011
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
-- Walt Whitman
was a child, I had a dear friend named Wendy. Wendy’s family owned
a large, old house and in the back was a carriage house. On the top
floor was a refurbished, rented apartment. Below was another room,
unfinished, filthy and filled with leftover parts and pieces.
summer, Wendy and I decided we wanted to fix it up and make it our
own. For several days we worked, carrying and piling unwanted items
large and small off to the corner. We swept up nails and dirt,
threw some things away, and arranged others. We even attempted to
paint using the remains of several severely bright and discordant
I ran over to Wendy’s house as early as eight in the morning to do
this “work.” For that time, my place and purpose in the world were
clearly defined and embraced, and I would not have traded the
experience for anything. In the end, we had created our own home.
We popped popcorn, opened the spring-filled mattress in the old
hide-a-bed couch, and christened the space with a sleepover.
in is our birthright –knowing we fit in and belong requires
no compromise of self, only fully showing up in our lives for what
interests and excites us. In life we can create the structure, the
outlets, and the means through which we connect to others. And when
we’re doing our job of creating – of aligning with what we care
about - we fit in perfectly, exactly as we are.
young teenage self still asking, “How do I be myself in the world?”
and to my youngest son who speaks a similar sentiment of wanting to
“fit in,” I say: remember the carriage house, remember Wendy,
remember to line yourself up with what you love - and you’re in.
And then you’ll realize that not only do you belong, but you always
have and you always will.
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Jennifer Paros is a writer,
illustrator, and author of
Violet Bing and the Grand House
(Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.
Please visit her website at