There is a certain alienation that comes from life away from home. Home, of course, can be variously defined. On one extreme it can be wherever I lay my head, on the other it can be the insulated community that either forbids an exit or so transforms its inhabitants that they ever fear it. A better estimation of home is the place of family, but how wide should this circle be drawn, and what of those who through no fault of their own, lack such a centering force? Where is home best located?
I think the feature which can unite all plausible definitions of home is a sense of belonging. Life away from home, however defined, rips one away from all which is dear and precious, and no matter the reward or the adventure involved, places one in the context of those untroubled by the earlier absence, and unconcerned for the continuing presence. While this is rarely true in the absolute sense, one away from home must seek out bonds of belonging for his very psychological welfare. Without them, he is a man adrift.
We, the authors of this blog, are an American family who live in Egypt, a country populated by a race widely celebrated for their welcome to and hospitality toward strangers. We also are beginning a job with an international workforce, and are living in the part of Cairo densely populated by foreigners, including many of our compatriots. All of these factors suggest that we may suffer less than others in developing a new sense of belonging. Yet the quickest solutions are laden with obstacles which may keep a true sense of belonging from ever taking hold.
Absent from the definition above is any mention of place. Home, though not a residence, is an intangible connection to those who reside in a given location. It is a very fluid connection, for over time the individuals in such a location will change, and the locus of one’s residence in the location may shift. Yet for a sense of belonging to emerge and persevere there must be a dual permanence of people and place. For this, the international community is clearly lacking. Most foreigners do not stay long, so the pattern of attachment and detachment corrodes a sense of belonging. In addition, all come from another home, another place. Whether their stay is long or short, how can they ever belong to the land itself? If our need for belonging is met primarily here, it will ever be a temporary exchange of convenience, no matter how true or how deep the friendships become.
We have no guarantees on how long we will be here. We know we will never belong to the land. We know we are guests who have no claim to belong. We can be celebrated or despised, honored or tolerated, exploited or ignored, but these are responses given to those who do not belong. What hope can we have in here finding our home?
Nevertheless we will try. If from desperation we will be unfulfilled. If from agenda we will be rejected. It is our only hope that if from love we may find appreciation. We will seek to speak like them, live like them, become like them. At the same time, we will know that we will never achieve this, and we will not live as if it were not so. It is neither goal nor means; it is a token, offered humbly, of our respect and admiration. It is an exclamation of our desire to belong.
The desire to belong assumes a desire to contribute. Yet this contribution must be for the good of those who naturally belong, from whom we will derive our own benefit. To belong is to care for the common welfare, to participate in search of common solutions. Yet the tension of not-belonging must inherently limit; a guest should be silent and appreciative of what is given. The desire to serve can be experienced as and may indeed be drawn from an inflated self-worth, no matter how kind. Surely the greater blesses the less. The usurpation of a sense of superiority will trump any sense of belonging.
Armed with this knowledge we proceed cautiously. Yet herein lies the secret. We aim for belonging here in our locality because we have experienced belonging in a greater sense. It is our hope and faith that we belong to God. One confident in such a truth can seek to belong wherever he wishes. Confident we are eternally accepted, we can risk rejection in every other arena. This, we hope, is love, which produces service, which without belonging is experienced as paternalism. So, we will serve, we will seek to belong, and if denied, we will hurt. Yet the reward is great. If we belong to them, then they also will belong to us, and the emerging “we” can experience together the grace that belongs alone to God.
“A Sense of Belonging” will chronicle our lives in this reality. It is our hope that as we live and learn, you also may watch and learn with us. Any sense of belonging we may create together is a bonus.