Longing for Belonging

Updated on May 2, 2017

Gabriella van RijBy Gabriella van Rij  (originally featured in NYdailynews.com)

Labels, labels, labels. Why can’t I just be known by “me”? Instead of by my affiliations, country, company, or religion? As an adoptee, perhaps I have felt the devastating effect of labels more strongly than others. Classmates labeled me orphan, Paki, peanut butter for my brown skin, and the list went on. And then labels I was given by my adopted family. You are Dutch now, they told me. And they tried to give me a new first name, along with their family name. Even as a small child, I refused. My name is Gabriella, I told them in broken English.

One’s country, culture, and religion are already very heavy labels, but then as we grow up, there are more and more labels… from whatever stupid thing you did in childhood to all the mistakes that played out publicly. It is very hard to navigate in a world without a label, both for ourselves and others. Some people want labels so that they can belong. Other people want labels so they can put others in a box in order to feel safe. Our society is so used to labeling that we don’t know any longer how to function without it… even in the days of my grandparents, you were the kid of the butcher, or from a rich family, these and other labels gave others a way to categorize you and know in their minds who you were…

But what about those who feel that no labels properly describe who they are? Like I say in my talks, when we have too many labels, it is always to the exclusion of others that do not fit the mold. Just because you do not want a certain label that you were born with, you are still faced with the universal problem of needing and wanting to belong to a group or a family, which is instinctive and very primal… And then what happens when our social interactions are severed and you feel like an outsider looking in?

I am boldly stating that I believe devastating things occur in our society when this happens. We need to feel belonging somewhere. If we cannot find it in our families, we will roam the world until we find belonging!

Loneliness can drive us to find belonging in unexpected places because when you feel like an outsider that grass looks greener inside the group. It really feels like others have families, it feels like they are all happy and have jobs and are not struggling, which is an emotion outsiders often face.

You begin to look at these things:
– other cultures different from your own
– other religions different from your own

And when you start searching, you find that other cultures and religions have different sets of rules than what you are used to and you are learning to broaden your horizons, which in today’s diverse world is indeed a good thing. Now when we explore other religions, why do we do that? I believe we do this in hopes of finding an ideology to attach ourselves to.

Now the two similarities that I want to talk about is when one person finds the religion of Islam and another person finds the Catholic church as their salvation. What is the difference? Both people find something that makes them feel they belong… They finally found what seemed missing. Their loneliness and rudderlessness have been replaced by religion. And they have finally found a renewed purpose and meaning in their life.

The two people I am talking about: one is my mother who found solace and comfort in the Catholic Church, particularly during the time she lived alone from 1977 until her death in 2007, almost 30 years. That is a very long time, and you know what? Most of us would agree with me that this was great for her and that this religion gave her a renewed sense of purpose and a reason for living.

The other person I am talking about we will have a much harder time accepting. CNN recently ran a feature story on Michael Delefortrie, a young Belgian man who converted to Islam. He is not much different than my mother because he thought this specific religion was going to make him part of something greater than himself. He gave an interview and said; “I am no longer a Belgian, I am a Muslim.”

There are a couple things that come to mind.

The young man finally feels belonging and part of something but is it going to give him what he is looking for? Does he realize that he replaced one label for another?

Because now I need to let you know that this young man then decided to travel to Syria to join ISIS. So he became what we call an extremist. Now here is where I make the connection…

My mother, of course, would not be considered an extremist but she suddenly went to church more often than she ever had before and she was someone who always talked about things in the Bible, etc… So in my eyes, I would say she became intense about her ideology, just like this young Belgian man did. Both were roped in slowly but surely… A new idea, a new concept and then slowly the group takes your arm and then you are part of them and somehow you feel whole and complete. And then in the case of the Belgian man, when asked if he would execute someone if asked, the answer was that yes, he would obey Islamic law.

What I find so devastating is that things happen to all of us while growing up, but not all of us can stand being alone, or feeling like an outcast, year in and year out. Whether it is because you are a divorced lady like in my mother’s case or whether you are this young man. Both followed an ideology that made them feel less alone, one obviously was violent and had to do things that the other did not have to. But both found solace within the group. And that is my point here…

It saddens me that religion filled that hole of loneliness in my mother and it saddens me that this young man had experienced such pain in his own country and in his own religion that it led him to look for belonging elsewhere.

I am not immune to this desire for belonging either! But because of my life experiences, I can see clearly how this desire drives so many people’s life stories and the extreme lengths people will go to to feel accepted. I have one leg in the East and one leg in the West and I am more than OK not to belong to either.

In our society, we must teach that there is room for those who feel that they don’t belong, that there is room for them to exist without a label, without having to go to such extremes to find belonging and connection.

Gabriella van Rij (www.gabriella.global) is a speaker, author and activist whose latest book, Watch Your Delivery, explores how we often fail in communicating. She began her life as an orphan in Pakistan, and today is a frequent guest on TV and radio. She also is the author of I Can Find My Might and With All My Might.


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