Wide Spot: Set the Table

If I had five bucks for every time I’ve heard someone grieve over feeling like they don’t belong, I could spend a month in Costa Rica with money left over.

I don’t want to denigrate the sincere yearning for community. Many of us lack friends who are willing to hear the longing of our hearts. We have no one with whom to share our deepest beliefs, no one who sees us and loves us just as we are.

But over the years, I’ve discovered that it’s useless trying to find that kind of community. When I’m focused on locating the mythical right place where I’ll be fully accepted, seen, supported and cherished, something awkward inevitably happens. Someone falls off the pedestal, hurts my feelings, professes something I can’t accept. I get disillusioned, judge that something’s wrong with that group, and walk away, looking for a better place.

Because the focus is always on what I want, searching for perfect community is a doomed task. It’s a fantasy to expect that I’ll be cherished and comfortable without effort on my part, without the pain of misunderstanding, risk, disagreement. Since expectation is, as they say, nothing but a premeditated resentment, I end up adding resentment to the ache of loneliness I started with. 

Belonging is not something magic. Community is not a gift that your fairy godmother should have presented on your naming day. Belonging is not a privilege that the world withholds from you out of spite. Community is a birthright, one for which we bear responsibility. Reciprocity is the fuel that makes belonging and community possible.

Years ago, just after I quit drinking, my work required that I attend a function where alcohol was going to be served. I was terrified to go, afraid I’d be struck drunk. But I couldn’t skip it, so I asked for help. A wise friend advised me that as soon as I entered the party, I should search out the loneliest-looking person in the room. My job, she said, was to help that person feel welcome. I could leave after 45-minutes if I was too uncomfortable.

I took her advice, and had so much fun that I forgot to leave. I spent hours laughing, listening, having real conversations, learning that connection happens when I quit worrying about myself.

These days I believe that if I want a place at the table, I’d damn well better be the one who sets the table. So I mentally reframe situations where I feel shy: I imagine myself no longer a supplicant waiting to be noticed but a host responsible for making others feel comfortable, as if they belong.

When we’re the ones setting the table—literally or metaphorically—we’re not focused on having our preferences met or staying in our comfort zone. Instead, we’re trying to see and listen to the other. Surprisingly, this is the precondition that tumbles us into joy, pulls us to experience the universal sincerity and hunger and tenderness that resides deep down within all. That’s community. That’s belonging.

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