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Small Belonging Wins... and What Made You Snort Today?

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Mother Teresa

“Snort, snort.” Some rendition of that snortish sound is how I woke up this morning. My husband woke up and asked, “What was that, a cough or a chuckle?”

“A chuckle, I am remembering the teeniest wave, which packed the biggest wallop, I have ever received.”

The wave happened yesterday but let me set the stage.

I was listening to a podcast about belonging. It was an interview with Geoff Cohen, from a year ago. Cohen’s book was released this September. (I bought the book, but had to listen to the podcast because the book disappeared from my house recently which may be a testament to its value.)

A sense of belonging, according to Cohen’s research is hugely important for self-worth, self-efficacy, performance, and well-being. In the book (which I did read a bit of), Cohen defines a sense of belonging as the perception that one feels accepted and valued.

However, in the earlier interview Cohen describes what a sense of belonging is more from its deficit - what it feels like when we don’t think we belong. When we perceive that we don’t belong, we feel that we aren’t wanted.

Cohen reminds us that we’ve all had those times particularly during periods of transition or going some place new where we may question whether we belong or not. He reminds us that we have two primary modes of being within our minds and bodies. Threat or safety.

When we are wondering if we belong or not, much of our energy goes into looking for threat or safety cues. That hyper-alert situation lowers our ability to otherwise engage, to contribute, to think well.

When I got to that part of the podcast, I stopped the video and ran out the door. “Hey John, I’m headed to the high school; you want to go to a volleyball game?” John knew what that invitation was all about.

We had made a very slight connection with an intensely shy thirteen-year-old the previous day. We were somewhat dismayed that we could not seem to make much of a connection with her.

Yes, the girl was a teen. Yes, we were strangers. Yes, she was a Filipina. Yes, we were much older. She seemed like she was desperate to get away from us. The girl had whispered, however, that she liked volleyball. Eventually it came out that she played on the Cashmere eighth-grade team, and that the team was playing the next day.

On the podcast, Cohen’s mention of his research on how small “wins” around connection and belonging can make a huge impact motivated me to hustle to the teen’s volleyball game. And there’s where stuff happened.

The Cashmere girls were playing. Kicking butt. After each point, whether it was won or lost, a group hug and huddle followed. Great way to engender belonging I mused.

After two games, there was a moment of waiting for the referee’s whistle. The players were on the floor ready. That’s when it happened.

The teen’s eyes locked on mine. They seemed to register a system in slight shock…but trying to conceal it.

I waved with enthusiasm. Then, though her left arm and hand were held tightly to her side, the teen was able to muster the tiniest little wave. For nobody else to see, but it was a recognition.

I see you. You see me. A connection. Whoopee!

Other stuff happened while we were at the high school gym. An old friend found us. We saw her son and the son’s daughter who played on the team. The principal of the middle school chatted amicably with us as she tried to explain her blue hair (one of the promised results of a successful school fundraiser).

Even though, we were out of our natural habitat, we felt…good. Maybe more specifically, our bodies were registering a sense of safety, of connection and belonging. Like we were having our own group huddle.

As I reflect on the art of pursuing and making connections, I think about the challenges as well as what motivates us to take on the challenges, and the potential outcomes like a sense of belonging and activation of our safety mode.

Imagine what that means for us individually and collectively. People who feel they belong perform well, contribute more, feel less despair, have less need to hurt and bully, or desperately run away.

The day my Chinese born, daughter-in-law, Shu, was sworn in as a citizen of this country, she came home with a look I couldn’t quite decipher. “How did it go?” I asked.

Shu recounted the most moving part. It was when she listened to the president’s message on a video. It assured her that she belonged here. This is a country of immigrants who have made incredible contributions the president had said. He assured all those getting citizenship that their contribution was important and needed. (I realize now I could do a better job in my own words and behavior to remind Shu of that message.)

Indeed, Cohen says words like the president’s (Obama at the time) is a key belonging intervention. Somehow in both our sincere words and our authentic actions (our huddles and hugs, our smiles, both our exuberant and our teeny waves), we make it clear that others are accepted, wanted and needed.

It’s not just a feel-good thing, though that is immensely important for our well-being. It’s also about success and achievement.

But here’s another piece. We learn what’s going on with folks...with our community.

When I went to the community dinner last Thursday, connected with people I didn’t know, and eventually leaned into an authentic conversation, I heard specific stories.

I heard about this couple’s need, our general community’s need, for affordable housing. I heard about the loss of the only home they could afford. It was a small, used RV which caught fire.

These real conversations keep do-gooders like me from going off half-cocked with our own insulated ideas about what people need. The same goes for our families, schools, and workplaces.

How often do we come up with solutions without really connecting with others, without establishing a sense of safety and belonging… without creating a felt psychological space where we all can huddle up and joyfully and respectfully collaborate? How does that work out for us all?

Cohen tells of a law school that he and his team surveyed for their sense of belonging. The outcome? Those who felt the greatest sense of not belonging were African-American women. The next group who felt they did not belong were white conservative males. That’s an eye-opener. Or maybe not.

Perhaps we are seeing in our own country and across the globe what happens when people feel disconnected, like they don’t belong. Mental illness, violence, drugs, political mayhem, despair rather flourishing.

Cohen reminds us that these days it isn’t just minorities, but basically all of us who may be feeling that we don’t belong (because we're an old white man, or we're a woman, or a minority, or a teen, or...the list goes on, particularly in certain settings). Certainly, we don’t have that sense of unconditional belonging.

And we can turn that around. It may not take as much as we think. Cohen urges us again toward pursuing those small wins, those tiny waves. At the very least, we might end up with a story about what made us smile or snort this morning.

How might we move up to The Good Life together if we all make a concerted effort toward connecting, making others feel respected and valued, and celebrate small wins?


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