“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” — Groucho Marx
I imagine there’s comfort when you’ve always had the same circle of friends, grown up in the same place, and worked within one industry.
I’ve gone through my life feeling as if I never quite fit in. I moved countries every few years, I changed schools and universities even when in the same country – always the new face. For many years, my immediately family was split across three continents. Freelance work in film production meant going from gig to gig. I’m the perpetual outsider – forever one foot in and one foot out. I’ve never belonged anywhere.
Belonging vs belonging
There are really two types of belonging:
One is an internal sense of belonging, where we feel at home. My fellow nomadic friend Alex told me that everywhere he’s lived as an adult, people have known him for the role he’s played: co-worker, person with common interest, friend of this person. And Home is where people don’t know or care about the role he plays in the world, in what he’s achieved or who he knows. Home is where he can just be.
To me, this Home is not a place, but my mother. There’s no need to hide any facet of myself, we have each others’ backs, and the love is unconditional. It’s grounding to be around her, and a handful of other people in my life.
The fear of not belonging
Without this internal belonging, we feel unmoored; it’s a fertile base for an existential crisis.
Isolation feels truly wretched. In the depths of my depression, I would look at people around me and feel as if I was on one side of the world, everyone else on the other.
Alienation is one of the frequent reasons high school students go on a rampage and shoot their fellow classmates.
Losing our sense of community can make us sick and die early, as shown by studies of ageing populations when their children move away, unlike comparable groups where multiple generations live close together.
The anxiety of not belonging
The other type of belonging is more external: it’s about membership to the club. It could be driven by ego and it’s definitely fed by fear.
At work, we think we’ve managed to con our colleagues and employers into believing we’re qualified for our jobs when we know that we’re not. This is so common that there’s even a term in psychology for it: imposter syndrome.
In schools and universities, we think everyone around us is more brilliant and knowledgeable, and we got there by fluke.
In our relationships, an often unintentional slight is taken for wilful snubbing, making our worst fears spiral.
In social situations, we dread walking into a party where we don’t know anyone. We busy ourselves at the buffet table, sure they’re all whispering about how we don’t have any friends.
We can even feel it in our bodies, when everyone else seems to be fit/thin/tall/smooth-skinned and we’re the gargoyle in their midst.
Wanting this type of belonging is often about wanting other people’s approval. This social anxiety (ranging from low-grade paranoia to high-pitch panic attacks) is exploited in a capitalist infrastructure: be seen with the latest gadget, at the right restaurants, wearing fashionable clothes, having a cool address. Because we, on our own, are never Enough.
The beauty of not belonging
The truth is, most of us don’t feel as if we belong.
People often talk freely to an obvious outsider like me, so I hear this all the time. I hear it from popular school students and quiet housewives and incredibly famous movie stars.
Many of us move through this world thinking we’re somehow the odd one out, while everyone else is a part of something we’re not.
It’s as if there’s a neon sign in our heads screaming: You Don’t Belong Here!
I’ve decided: it’s okay. We don’t need to belong – in the external, surface, social way.
When we don’t belong, we may not feel wholly comfortable, and that’s all right. There’s no urge to make the world a better place when everything is peachy. Pushing boundaries and questioning the status quo is how we progress as a society.
When we don’t slot in, there’s no need to try to conform to external parametres, or live by someone else’s rules.
We don’t stay friends with people we’ve outgrown for fear of being alone, or because that’s “just how it’s always been”. Instead, we choose our tribe.
When we don’t try to fit the mould, there’s no need to apologise for who we are. We can go right ahead and keep evolving rather than staying spinning in one spot. We become true to ourselves.
“When I lived at home with father, he used to tell me his opinion on everything, and I held the same opinions. If I thought differently, I concealed them, or he wouldn’t have liked it. […] …I passed from father’s hands into yours. You arranged everything to suit your tastes, and so I came to have the same tastes as you; or I pretended to – I don’t know which – both ways, perhaps.” — Nora, The Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
A longing to be
Trying to belong, ironically, ends up feeling forced and fake, all a bit Talented Mr Ripley.
When we don’t bend to conform to other people’s expectations, it becomes more, “I’ll have what she’s having.” The coolest people I know neither conform nor rebel – they do their own thing. (Rebelling is no different to conforming; it still means using an external benchmark for one’s own values and behaviour.)
By not worrying about belonging, we somehow behave as if we already do. But not to a small box, but to the whole world, to humanity.
“We would worry less about what others think of us if we realised how seldom they do.” — Ethel Barrett
Related Film Recommendations:
There’s a rich tradition of American high school films about the pressures to conform, with comedies ranging from the musical (Grease) to the dark (Heathers) to the ruthless (Mean Girls). The most seamless and fun is Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling and based on Jane Austen’s Emma – which goes to show that bossy girlfriends have been around for ages.
After making sprightly wry films such as Juno and Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman takes his time with the more mature and complex Labor Day, a moving story of two outcasts: an escaped convict and a housewife trapped in a life she didn’t want. It held me down until the last frame.
One of the most highly-paid actors with a healthy career spanning decades, defies being pigeon-holed. Keanu Reeves eschews traditional movie star behaviour by riding on the subway, dining alone in public and travelling with no entourage, let alone bodyguards. His choices are unconventional, as when he favoured touring with his little-known rock band in place of doing a sequel to the mega-blockbuster Speed; and gave away $75M of his fee from the Matrix sequels to the special effects and makeup teams (who he said were the real stars of the trilogy). Watch any of his 64 films and salute the good man.