Personal Transformation: Finding a Bigger, Stronger “We”

Check out this post by Marlena Fiol author of Nothing Bad Between Us

Belonging means feeling part of a group. It’s “we-ness.”

Social identity theory proposes that the groups we belong to (e.g., social class, family, etc.) are typically important sources of pride and self-esteem. They also give us a fundamental sense of who “we” are, a sense of belonging.

It feels comfortable to belong.

An unfortunate side-effect of this comfortable sense of belonging is that as a member of an in-group, I will almost automatically seek to find negative aspects of out-groups, thus enhancing my own self-image. I will self-organize by “tribe” — and push back against those who are different.

We have been doing this for over 400 years in our country. I recently read that the video of George Floyd’s death lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, but that “it was 401 years in the making” — a reference to the history of slavery in America.

As I describe in my new book Nothing Bad Between Us: A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness, I grew up in Paraguay, South America on a Low-German Mennonite leprosy compoundthat my North American parents founded the year I was born. I was what Pollock and Van Reken refer to as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), a child who grows up living outside her parents’ home culture, often experiencing many moves across cultures.

Reportedly, there are many advantages to growing up this way: proficiency in multiple languages, expanded worldviews and cultural empathy are among the frequently noted ones. But the downsides are just as numerous: rootlessness and restlessness, the ability to adapt to many circumstances, but to feel at home in none.

I didn’t know where I belonged. I was rootless. It was uncomfortable and disorienting.

My guest in this week’s podcast episode is Liz Scott, a psychologist currently residing in Portland, Oregon. Her new book This Never Happened also explores the discomfort of not knowing where she belonged — but through a very different lens.

Liz grew up in a stable community in the Northeast. Her best friend since kindergarten lived across the street and they grew up together. So, Liz could clearly point to the place where she was from. She longed in a different way to know where she belonged.

When I asked her about belonging, here’s what she said: “I tell a story early on in the book about how when I was younger, several times I asked my mother if she had any brothers or sisters because we never met a single relative, and we never heard about any relatives. And her answer to me was, “I don’t remember.” … So, I felt this kind of untethered feeling like I was kind of floating. I didn’t have a sense of my place in generations. I just felt very unmoored… I have worn my rootlessness like a custom-made, one-of-a-kind, jewel-encrusted cloak adorned with shiny metals.”

Like me, Liz didn’t know where she belonged. She was rootless. It was uncomfortable and disorienting.

I believe there’s a larger lesson here:

To begin to finally end centuries of domination and exclusion will require that I re-draw the lines around my “we,” including in my circle of belonging those I have consciously or unconsciously excluded.

And this will necessarily mean that I relinquish my comfortable rootedness in my current circles of belonging. And when I do, similar to when I was a third culture kid, I will for a time not know where I belong. I will feel rootless. It will be uncomfortable and disorienting. And it’s where I must go. It is a place I must pass through on my way to belonging to a biggher, stronger “we.”

The multiethnic, multigenerational demonstrations around the world after the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, appear to be cohering into a larger circle of “we.” The intensity, scale and scope of the demonstrations, and our collective grief and anger are temporarily over-riding old in-group/out-group categorizations and the prejudices they carried.

But when the flames subside, my old self-enhancing categories of belonging will still be there and will again try to define who I am and how I treat the other, unless I go through the discomfort and disorientation of no longer belonging where I thought I belonged. This will require ongoing and conscious efforts to define myself in new ways.

Haas Institute Director John Powell, a sought-after speaker on race, civil rights and social justice recently said, “America must expand conceptions of “who belongs” in society and “who is part of the circle of human concern in order to achieve our vision…If we do it right, we’re actually going to create a bigger we, a different we.”

If we do it right.

Only Breath
My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
— Rumi


Nothing Bad Between Us

A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness

This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.