We all want to feel like we belong. It’s part of our human condition: we want to feel like we have a place in the world. Whether or not it’s being a loner or being the center of attention, we want to feel like that what ever it looks like we feel like we belong there for good reason.
For a 20-30 something, this notion of belonging is a particularly significant concern. 20-30 somethings have moved on from adolescence and have a pretty solid concept as to who they are and their identity. This new life stage (Erikson’s 6th) navigates the question of belonging: how someone lives in the world as who they are. So before someone can really focus on what they’re doing with their life, they are searching for intimacy.
A search for intimacy is not merely a search for love, though this is certainly an aspect. More so, intimacy is the grander work of learning how to be one’s self in whatever relationships and affiliations one finds themselves. It is a work of balancing commitments. How does one to commit to this or that relationship, when do they do it, where do they do it and what of themselves do they commit.
Every commitment be it to close friend or distant enemy requires some type of negotiation, of sacrifice and compromise of the self. How much time do you give to the trolls as you do something else, do you interact with a friend the same as a spouse, etc.
Intimacy is the search for balancing the self in every relationship’s compromises. It sounds a lot like the challenge of marriage/love which is why that is such an important part of belonging.
The difficulty of this balancing act and trying to belong can result in feelings of isolation. Because the vulnerability and balance of intimacy is so hard, it can also feel threatening. It is easy to lose one’s self in relationships by compromising the self as opposed to the relationship. One of the ways we naturally deal with threats is to establish some type of barrier against that threat, to isolate ourselves from it. Fight or flight.
The clearest way isolation looks is flight, the simple withdrawing from relationships. If in our attempts to balance belonging and intimacy we get hurt in the vulnerability we withdraw ourselves physically, such as divorce or cutting someone out of our lives.
Fight is a bit more complicated. The barrier isn’t one of distance but of self-restraint. As opposed to withdrawing ourselves physically, we protect ourselves by no longer being vulnerable to someone else. It is an internal distance as opposed to an external one.
The 20-30 something is looking for a way to honestly be themselves in the world. In their search to belong they separate establish clear boundaries and compromises in order to belong as themselves as authentically as they can. However, this search for intimacy and belonging always runs the risk of isolation, either a withdrawal from a community or a withdrawal from the self.
Which means 20-30 something year olds are are about relationships. Relationships are always important, but for an age group trying to figure out how to belong, they are especially meaningful. It is through relationships that they make sense of themselves and the world.
We currently see this at play in the “rise of the Nones” and the large scale millennial disaffiliation from organized religion (which also happened with Boomers & Gen-xers). This is nothing more than the Millennials’ search for intimacy. 20-30 somethings are isolating from church and finding intimacy elsewhere. Barna’s research helps explains why, millennials see the church as close-minded, thus threatening to their sense of self. Trying to belong in church isolates them from the world and trying to belong in the world isolates them from church. And because it’s easier to find ways to connect with people of varying life-styles beyond church, millennials go there.
Belonging itself is hard enough, how hard the work of helping people do so! How does one, much less the church, help one navigate a the compromises one must take as they negotiate themselves and their relationships.
This is a work that must take into account the sense and struggle of belonging. It requires helping people wrestle with belonging in multiple communities and relationships that can be vastly different from each other. As the more the world grows connected this work gets more confusing and challenging. One can belong to groups requiring more negotiating and compromising and probably wrestling with more questions than finding answers.
Part of this means having a space where that wrestling and those questions can live and breath. Part of this also means looking at belonging the way another particularly notable 30 year old did.
Bonus note: The of a healthy sense of intimacy and belonging, promotes a healthy concept of doing the right thing. The better one knows how to belong in their world, the better one is able to work in their world.