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The Value of Belonging

I just celebrated a birthday – not a milestone, but nonetheless a not-so-subtle reminder that I am getting older. My thoughts drifted back to the first time I recalled truly enjoying my birthday. I had invited my girlfriends to my home on the Saturday nearest my 15th birthday. All afternoon we ran around our yard squirting each other with our squirt guns filled with water, laughing, screaming and just being alive and in community. This was brand new to me – I had moved to this school district in 8th grade and now in the spring of sophomore year I finally had a pack of friends. This friend group didn’t survive past sophomore year, but I remember that day as the first time I felt like someone who mattered to a community that mattered to me.

I have been thinking about the value of community this week. Like so many, I am reeling over the horrific mass shootings over the last week – Buffalo, New York, Laguna Woods, California, and Uvalde, Texas have now become the latest scenes of bloody death and grief. It is too much to process. I find myself alternatively weeping and furious, grieving at the senseless loss of so many, and angry at the incomprehensible unwillingness or inability over so many years to take any action to stem or slow this uniquely American horror show.

Beyond this overwhelming frustration, I was already confronting another incomprehensibly grim statistic, the one million deaths here in the United States from COVID. So many victims and so many preventable! The obstacles to gun control and pandemic control are similar – a large minority of our American voting public has placed a societal priority on individual choice and freedom rather than the common good – public health and safety. This block of U.S. voters (with apparent veto power at least for the foreseeable future) would rather be free from health and safety restrictions the majority deems sensible even if it results in depressingly regular mass shootings and more than one million deaths from a communicable disease.

I sought refuge this week in my faith communities, our church and synagogue, to give me help processing this madness. I needed to hear that God cares for us individually and collectively and is with us sharing our collective sorrow, our frustration at the obstacles to solutions to these ongoing disasters, our anger. At its best, the church offers that solace, and a sense of belonging to a community where you are loved simply for showing up, for being human. No judgment, just a sense that we are all in this together.

I also needed a place where I can feel uplifted to continue to make a difference, to heal this broken world. Our priest Bruce Bramlett acknowledged our collective and individual feeling of helplessness but called us to continue to work toward a solution, saying “It takes boldness to confess that God will keep those promises of deliverance and salvation. Faithfulness is, in truth, a bold and risky decision. It is not wishful thinking. It is a real decision, a choice we make about who and what we will serve. To what do we give our allegiance? What is of ultimate importance to us?” And then he called us to action, saying:

Prayer is important, but action is up to us. We must act. We must make our choices, our decisions, about how we will act in our world for peace, for justice, for a new humanity, for God’s new world. …The answer must be our lives in acts of self-giving love; love that overcomes hate, love that defeats violence and our all too human need to dominate others. But the world will not be transformed by our individual acts of compassion and kindness alone. We must grow a community, a movement committed to engaging all the policies and acts of government, as well as those of our entire predatory economic and political system, grounded and built on exploitation, injustice, and domination. We must challenge and overturn all those systems grounded in the false gods of greed and avarice in which we all find ourselves enmeshed. No one of us is innocent but all can be redeemed.

People of faith, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and all our brothers and sisters in other religions around the world, can come together to make a difference. We can move to redemption and healing if we can get beyond our feeling of resignation and helplessness. We cannot do this alone, but we can all work together as people of faith and move mountains.

While I think about the solace and the power of faith communities, I am also pondering about those shooters, so many times loners, often single white males who have no community except the Internet. Lack of community, of belonging, is deadly. We hear after the fact so often that a mass shooter was previously, and typically for many years, abused, bullied, rejected, miserable and not connected to any healthy community, school, family or other, and so someone who was isolated and feeling humiliated and of no consequence. Filled with anger and resentment at this indictment, the person lashes out.

I find myself wondering what might have happened if that individual had simply encountered a kind individual somewhere along the way who could be counted on regularly to give a smile, to listen to a sad tale. a slight or a bump in the road, to be a reliably caring soul. Just one such reliable connection to kindness and relationship can make a difference – to matter to someone, to belong, is to be connected to humanity. I grieve to think that the individual shooter did not find such kindness, any meaningful human connection, in time to interrupt a devastatingly insane and angry explosion growing out of his personal history.

And so, as Bruce Bramlett observed, our individual acts of loving kindness are essential, even if not sufficient. It is a great kindness to befriend a hurting soul. We never know what impact we might have with a smile or a kind word to a stranger. Isolation leads too often to madness of one kind or another. We ignore others at either our peril or theirs, or both.

Of course, COVID has been isolating for most of us, both emotionally and physically. We have missed human touch and emotional closeness over these past two years. Laughter and tears shared in person are somehow more cleansing, offer more of a catharsis, a sense of closure. Connections over the Internet simply don’t provide the same sense of belonging. We all know this from our many Zoom meetings. We enjoy screen conversations with our friends, family, and colleagues, and this technology connection is better than nothing! Still, there is something essential missing from these screen encounters – a physical component that seems to matter. Jonathan Sacks observed in a book published shortly before his death,

To be fully human, we need direct encounters with other human beings. We have to be in their presence, open to their otherness, alert to their hopes and fears, engaged in the minuet of conversation, the delicate back-and-forth of speaking and listening. That is how relationships are made. That is how we become moral beings. That is how we learn to think as "We." This cannot be done electronically.

Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good In Divided Times (2020).

Sacks amplifies the human need for “in person, human to human” connection not only to deepen existing relationships, but to “be fully human.” It seems that without that in person connection, over time we risk becoming disconnected, narcissistic, individualist, and unconcerned with the common good. The pandemic created a risk to our sense of shared community by pushing us into isolation. We need to renew and cultivate a sense of belonging for each human. Otherwise, our societal covenant to work toward community wholeness and wellbeing is threatened.

We do now have millions of humans around the world coming back into physical community after two years of social distancing. I am excited about this opportunity to have social engagement again in my life and the opportunity to form new communities in person. What kinds of communities give you a sense of belonging? What threatens that sense of belonging for you? What might prevent you from creating community with those different than you? What might encourage you to try a new group with a goal to create community?

We all need a caring community to thrive. I wish you many opportunities for belonging and community building in the months ahead. I also hope you will find opportunities to be kind to strangers, and a friend to those who need one, for each person we encounter bears the spark of the Divine.

Shalom and blessings, Diane Frankle

Co-Founder, Building Bridges Together™

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