The Art of Belonging
by Jennifer Paros
“Everyone is the same and unique.” -- Michael Neill
My youngest son, who has been having a challenging time in school, told me he wants to “fit in.”
At first 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 idea.
As 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.
When I was a young teen, while talking with my father in confidence I asked, “How do you be yourself out in the world?”
I had 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.”
Although 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 belonged.
In the 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.
“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
When I 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.
One 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 colors.
Some days 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.
Fitting 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.
To my 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.