The Journey to Belong

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J_Nicole

I scrolled through the photos of the gathering on Facebook. Smiling faces. Arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. It was my high school 20th reunion. Everyone looked so happy, as if they were having the time of their lives. And I wasn’t there. Emotional memories flooded in. Back then, I always felt just on the outside of friendship circles, desperately wanting to belong.

Two months later, a different gathering’s photographs filled my Facebook feed. Again, I found myself looking at photographs of smiling faces, of arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. But this time, in these photos, I was one of the smiling faces, and my shoulders were draped with the arms of beloved friends-who-are-family.

I began to reflect on my friendships with the people smiling back at me from this set of photographs, and slowly, a realization bloomed from deep within me that made my heart sing … These are MY people. These are the people who nurture me, challenge me, love me. These friendships represent the communities to which I NOW belong.

You may wonder, “How did that shift happen?” Honestly? I’m not entirely sure. But I think it unfolded when I began to shift from channeling most of my energy outward–trying to become who I thought everyone else wanted me to be–to channeling that energy inward, focusing on finding who I am.

During my studies in the areas of counseling and theology, I was encouraged to reflect on my life journey in essay upon essay.  I learned how my past shaped—for better or worse—my present. Through individual and group counseling, as well as engaging with various tools such as the Enneagram, I have been able to identify my wounds that became the lenses through which I viewed the world. I slowly grew to understand my wounds and unravel the knots caused by these wounds. But it has not been an easy journey. In fact, my journey more often than not resembled a wrestling match, with me grunting and sweating and swearing loudly as I fought with God and with the wounds of my past.

Like Jacob, I refused to let go of my wrestling partners until I received my blessing. And like Jacob, I did receive my blessing, but it came at a cost. Jacob wrestled with God all night and walked away from that encounter with a limp. I wrestled with God for six years, and even though I too was blessed, the cost was an incredibly painful process of healing. It is a cost for which I am now truly grateful.

Some months, I was so emotionally raw that my skin literally was sensitive to the touch, and other months I felt like I had completely lost my faith. During those times, I wasn’t sure if God existed, and if he did exist, what kind of God he really was. Because my faith is an essential part of my identity, I felt as if I had lost a sense of who I was. And because I felt so lost, I became a tortoise, withdrawing from the world into my shell so I could cope.

Yet, somewhere on this journey-that-was-like-a-wrestling-match, I found the courage to step out in all my wounded, God-is-not-done-with-me-yet glory. Friends and other loved ones came toward me and drew me out of my shell, unwilling to let me hide indefinitely. I found, to my surprise, that people loved me, wounds and issues and all.

As I reflected on gatherings and belonging, the parable of the Great Banquet found in Luke 14 came to mind. I read the version of this parable in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, and one phrase immediately made the joy-strings of my heart hum:

“If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

What struck me so powerfully was how the last part of that phrase beautifully describes my state of being today, and the journey I have travelled thus far. In concentrating on my own healing, I am learning to be content with myself. And the more I sink into that space, the deeper my sense of belonging becomes. I am learning that as I grow in loving myself, I become more fully ME. Consequently I belong more fully to “WE/US.”

The other aspect of the passage that stays with me, is the second group of invitation recipients and the power of invitation. Eugene Peterson calls the recipients “… the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks” (Luke 14:12-14), … those “people who never get invited out” (Luke 14:12-14), “… the misfits and homeless and wretched.” (Luke 14:21) I know what it’s like to feel the pain of these labels.

I reflected on the power of that second invitation, how wonderful it must have felt when they were invited. In the ancient Mediterranean world, only those who could reciprocate an invitation would be invited to social events. This inevitably excluded the poor and those who were deemed “unclean,” such as the sick, the lame, and the blind.

Imagine the scandal when insiders invited these outsiders, how joy and appreciation must have infused these recipients’ being. These “misfits” were wanted, and I can only imagine what that must have felt … To be wanted, to finally be invited, just as they were. I imagine how their posture straightened in pride and in joy, and how tall they walked as they entered that banquet.

And I can imagine all of this because their story of “misfit-ness” and of being a recipient of the invitation, is my story. And I can fully embrace their story, because now I know I belong.

____________________

So, my SheLoves sisters, what are your stories of finding a place of belonging? I would love to hear your  journey to belonging.

____________

Image credit: Tina Francis Mutungu

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Nicole Joshua
Nicole Joshua is a teacher, academic, reflective practitioner and encourager. She loves passionately and deeply and feeding people’s tummies and hearts makes her whole being smile. She is also a reluctant writer and sometimes blogs at Finding And Owning My Voice. Nicole and her husband cannot contain their excitement at having just embarked on their journey to adopt their first baby. And when you're in the same building as her, and you need to find her, all you need to do is follow the sound of her laughter.
Nicole Joshua
Nicole Joshua

Latest posts by Nicole Joshua (see all)

Nicole Joshua
  • What a hard, but beautiful journey. There’s so much power for me right here: “And I can imagine all of this because their story of “misfit-ness” and of being a recipient of the invitation, is my story.”

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Thanks Idelette. This post was a lot harder to write than I thought, but the process was worth it. I think it brought a bit of surrender of the pain associated with those memories in a surprising way. Thank you for the invitation to join the conversation this month 🙂

  • Helen

    Thank you for encouraging me to ‘keep on keeping on’ despite current setbacks. For the last 9 years I’ve been ‘kicking and screaming’ my way to wholeness in just the way you describe.
    I love that you see a link between your own fight and Jacob’s struggle as he wrestled with the angel. – me too! God seems to have led me into a new season of ‘trusting the flow’ as I write my way to freedom and the ‘truth that will set me free!’ and your words really spoke to my sore heart; especially this line – ‘I am learning that as I grow in loving myself, I become more fully ME. Consequently I belong more fully to “WE/US.”

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      I’m so glad that you found encouragement in this post, Helen. I have long loved the story of Jacob because in spite of himself, God still walked with him, and accomplished great things through him. May you find strength as you continue on this journey of healing and wholeness. It’s great to know a fellow sojourner 🙂

  • Sonja Ruf

    Hey lovely people
    My story was quite hurtful as well. In school I was an outcast and I struggled with finding friends I can trust and who loved me for who I am. That changed after I started at university three years ago. I found friends. Amazing friends. And I did not even had to do much just being me. There was this group that I suddenly was a part of. It is amazing to find a we, I belong to.
    Yesterday I met a girl 17 years old and she seems to struggle in a similar way as me in that age with the question where do I belong to. I do not know her very well. But I really want to get to know her better and help her, to find her place her people she belongs to. I have that urge to do something. I just do not quite know how. Do you people have any ideas?

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      I’m so glad you found a community you belong to. Varsity was also a time of transition for me from the loneliness I experienced in high school.
      With regards to helping that young girl, I would suggest that by intentionally connecting with her, getting to know her and allowing her space to tell her story is already a good start in helping her. Investing in healthy relationships contributed greatly to my growing sense of belonging, so extending a hand of friendship would be a good place for both of you in this new friendship. That’s my two cents 😉

  • The reality of wrestling to find your true self, and as a result being more available as an us/we is beautiful. Thank you.

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Pleasure Rachel. I have found that precious things are worth fighting for 🙂

  • Anne-Marie

    Nicole, dwelling with your words, this morning, and especially with the thought that we have to tend to ourselves and become more whole to then be able to dwell with others. In the mean time, it’s good to be reminded that God walks with us, warts and all, as with the difficult Jacob. You’ve also shown great tenacity as Jacob did. . A good reminder to hang on. Needed!

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Thank you Anne-Marie. The significance of tending to myself was one of the insights that I learned when writing this post! So glad it spoke to you too 🙂

  • Ella

    Thank you so much for this. Your words really resonate with me. “I slowly grew to understand my wounds and unravel the knots caused by these wounds.” I think I am going through this process at the moment, even this very day! – definitely feel a lot like Jacob wrestling with God! Thank you for your encouragement. 🙂

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      It’s such a pleasure, Ella. I hope that you encounter more people and spaces that will nourish and encourage you as you go through this process 🙂

  • Nicole, this is beautiful, thank you!

    Through many years of hurt at being ‘othered’, I look back now and realize that part of that was me. I felt close to one group of people by observing them. Out of fear of being judged, I stopped at observing, and so–I realize now–they had no opportunity to feel close to me. I thought this was because they were mean or unthinking for a long time. I didn’t see that part of it was how I held back, out of fear, the best parts of myself, how I stopped myself from being silly and human, from really joining in.

    Years later, when reunion, wedding, or shower photos would come up on facebook, it would hurt. Sometimes it still does. But, like you, there are other photos; other groups, with their arms around me, places where I did cross that canyon of vulnerability, friends whose weddings I’ve traveled miles to, and whose babies wear things I’ve made by hand. Friendships that stretch over years, who lift me up and remind me that trust and vulnerability have greater returns than maintaining an image.

    Who knows why one group drew that out and another didn’t? Maybe they both had different things to teach me. I wouldn’t have been the same person without both.

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Jana, thank you so much for sharing your story! I love your perspective on how the two groups taught you. I suppose this is what I learned as I worked on this post – that I had to learn something, rather than me criticizing them. I really appreciate your sharing 🙂

  • Hiding while I wrestle, building a shell around myself, sometimes feels like the only way to survive it. Finding the courage to allow people to wrap themselves around me during the fight and through the healing has been the most difficult and gracious gift in this season – one I am just beginning to learn. Thank you for the reminder!

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Those who fetched me are most precious to me, even though I grewtly resented them fetching me at the time. And you’re right. They are, and were, a gift 🙂

  • Sandy Hay

    I can probably remember the day i realized it was ok to be a “misfit”. A freeing moment. I’d like to say I haven’t looked back but that old nagging thought rears its head every so often (like last month). I hid for a long time, it seemed so safe, sometimes it still does. But being many years into this journey, I know that safety isn’t found in solitary. It’s found in the friendships (my word for 2015) of women who are family. Thank you Nicole 🙂

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Sandy, isn’t it strange how those feelings of misfit-ness never go away. One of my lecturers told me, wisely, that wounds never completely heal; you heal one layer, and then when you are strong enough, a deeper layer is exposed to be healed. Thank goodness, then, for friends who stay on the journey with you 🙂

  • Bev Murrill

    Nicole, I just love it when I find my people… and bizarrely, they are everywhere, but they are also rare… beautiful post, thanks. x

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Bev, it’s been delightful reflecting on how precious it is to have “my people”. It confirms the truth of the African saying, “I am because you are.” And thanks for the compliment 🙂

  • Nicole, belonging is an issue I still carry. Moving throughout my childhood, attending 6 different high schools in 5 states seemed to add to that longing to belong. I still have to remind myself my belonging with Christ is secure and all I need. Good words shared here. Thank you for your gracious heart.

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      Debby, I can so relate to the experience of moving. Me: 4 schools, three churches, five homes. It definitely contributed to the “misfit-ness” because I was so often the newcomer. And my faith, too, became the one place where I alwys belonged. Thank you for reminding me of that 🙂

  • Maria

    I struggle with belonging. For the past 2 years I’ve been searching for a community to belong to but, like you, I secluded myself to cope with my issues and struggles because I felt alone and misunderstood. I still do. It’s becoming harder to search for a community. I have many trust issues. However, I’ve been praying for vulnerability and God has been responding. I know he’ll guide me to my people and hopefully, finally, I’ll feel like I belong.

    • Nicole A. Joshua

      My prayer for you, Maria, is that you do find your people. And vulnerability, though, the hardest, is the best place to begin to learn to love yourself and to find the courage the leave the shell. The funny thing about vulnerability, also, is that it is not something done alone – it always involves other people, and I think there is the secret to why it is one of the places where belonging is grown 🙂

  • pastordt

    What a lovely, honest post, Nicole. Thank you! I, too, resonate with the story of Jacob and his wrestling nature – and I take comfort from the fact that God appears to enjoy a good wrestle! And I LOVE your conclusion – in fact, it’s a cornerstone of my own, very personal theology: it’s not more of Jesus, less of me – it’s more of Jesus, MORE of me. Isn’t that amazing??

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