The following post originally appeared at Quest for Meaning on October 9, 2012.
“Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted.” —Abraham Verghese, “Cutting for Stone”
I was born and raised in rural Wisconsin. Our town had a population of just over 5,000, my high school graduating class was just over 100, and our town has only two stoplights. But 10 years ago, I followed the love of my life south of the border into Illinois and, alas, I am now a Cheesehead living in the Land of Lincoln.
Despite the fact that I have lived in Chicago or its suburbs for more than a decade now, I must admit that I still don’t quite feel like I fit in. The traffic frustrates me, the options overwhelm me, and I sometimes feel lost among a sea of strangers.
But the funny thing is that when I go back home, I don’t fit in there either. I feel smothered, confined, and out-of-touch.
With every passing year I spend in my adoptive home state, I feel a little more comfortable. I become more comfortable with my surroundings. I see familiar faces in the grocery store. I meet more neighbors. I learn the quickest route to the gym, the theater, my son’s school.
And with every passing year and each visit home, the homesickness that I used to feel fades into a more realistic, less utopian nostalgia for my home and my past. But there are certain days when confusion sneaks up on me, catching me by surprise, and I am left shuddering in the corner, helplessly asking myself: “Where do I fit in? Where do I belong?”
Human nature drives us to find a place where we fit in, a community of people similar to us. A place where we fit in and feel wanted. A place where we belong.
There is a comfort in belonging, to know that we are among our kin, our people, our tribe. We seek out similarities and try to surround ourselves with those people who look like us, act like us, or think like us all in an attempt to fit in. To belong.
But, belonging isn’t really about fitting in at all. Rather, belonging is about being accepted and loved in spite of – or perhaps because of – our differences. Belonging is not conformity and similarity, but rather it is feeling an authentic love and respect simply for being who we are. Belonging is not the elimination of discomfort, but rather it is the knowledge that a compassionate embrace and tender empathy awaits us when we are feeling troubled. Belonging is not the presence of likeness, but rather it is being among people who fill our soul because we fill theirs.
It doesn’t matter whether I always feel like I fit in here in my adoptive home, with its sprawling malls, fast-moving tollways, Magnificent Mile, and affection for “Da Bears.” And it doesn’t matter whether I fit in during my visits back to my hometown either, with its dark and quiet streets, lack of good cell phone reception, and Friday night fish fries. Because, wherever I am, I am surrounded by people who love me, respect me, and accept me regardless of any differences in opinion, background, or lifestyles that may exist.
So I don’t need to fit in. Because I belong.