The formidable burden of belonging
This morning, my Uber driver lit up with delight as he talked about getting his three kids ready for school. The woman next to me in line for the bus shared her love for Rome and gave me suggestions for my upcoming trip. As we rode, the ladies in my row and I laughed until we cried about liquid eyeliner. (You had to be there.) This. This is the stuff of life. It’s mundane, and inconsequential, and it brings me to life in a way I can’t explain.
These days are fragile days. There’s a heaviness, a sorrowful wondering. We’re confounded. And I long to hope, I long for peace. “If we have no peace,” Mother Teresa said, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We have forgotten. I’ve forgotten. And as I spend a weekend in my beloved New York with dear, old friends, I’m reminded most powerfully of that belonging amidst the raw humanity around me.
It’s remarkable how good city life is for the soul. Or for mine, at least. There’s something about busy subways and streets that reminds me of my mysterious bond with the confounding, intriguing, and delightful in my midst. It is good for me to be sandwiched between fellow passengers, to stumble into my neighbor at an abrupt stop, to lock eyes with the baby in the stroller beside me. It is good for me to notice the old man biking with exotic flowers down the street late at night, to watch the lumbering toddler “race” his enthusiastic parents down the sidewalk, to overhear a nearby diner’s distress over the state of the world. These mere strangers do, in a wholly inexplicable way, belong to me, and I to them. We are each other’s.
And I do see this mutual belonging as a burden, a formidable one. Although it is not one to fear, or shirk, but to rejoice in. It’s a burden that reminds me that my life is not my own. It reminds me to change my plans when I see a chance to meet a friend in her suffering, to listen and console and remember my own time of great loneliness. It reminds me to close my book mid-sentence to engage in conversation with my chatty neighbor who longs to be heard. It reminds me to stop at the corner with the homeless man, to learn his name and to hear his story and to offer to buy him a meal. And it reminds me, too, to be vulnerable. To run the risk of hurt by opening my heart. To expect to be cared for and known, and to voice my pain when I’m not.
We’ve forgotten, Mother Teresa says. It’s not that we don’t know, that we’ve never learned, that we’re ignorant and unaware. We once knew that intimate belonging by heart, and now we’ve forgotten. So when did we know, and how did we forget? I recently visited a friend with a newborn, who said that even now, her little son is learning the ways and the goodness of God. When he cries, he finds comfort. When he’s hungry, he’s fed. When he wakes, there’s an adoring face ready to greet him with a smile. He’s cuddled and sung to and deeply cherished.
We first learn our belonging in the cradle, from the attentiveness and care of our parents, and we continue to experience it as we grow older. My mom tells me that I once came home from kindergarten seeming rather down. It wasn’t until bedtime that I broke down and opened up. Everybody wants to be my friend, I explained through sobs, but they don’t like each other! As young children, we possess this innate desire for unity, a longing for justice, a need to connect. Still we remember the burden of belonging.
But, somewhere along the way, we begin to lose it. It’s masked by insecurity and pride, by woundedness and resentment, by sheer selfishness. We undergo a secret, imperceptible amnesia as we forget our very nature as children of God and brothers and sisters of each other. But all is not lost. We mustn’t despair. Pope Francis talks about memory as the first foundation upon which we can tirelessly build and rebuild the Christian life: “One grace we can implore is that of being able to remember: to recall what the Lord has done in and for us, and to remind ourselves that he has not forgotten us but remembered us. God has chosen us, loved us, called us and forgiven us.” He calls us to remember God’s mercy, and in remembering, we are compelled to extend that same mercy to one another.
So, let’s remember. Let’s remember first that we belong, we all belong, to the same good, good Father who sees us and knows us, whose heart breaks with ours. Let’s remember the call to draw others in, not build up walls. Let’s remember to look for the good in those that exasperate us. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll recover that most necessary memory that we do, indeed, belong to each other.