My daughter Rachel will say that the best gift she received for her birthday last month was a fish out of water.

Literally, a fish out of water. 

When asked what type of present she desired, Rachel boldly asked one of the partygoers for a fish or turtle from the lake across our street. So this friend showed up to the party armed with a 5-gallon bucket containing water, some rocks and a swimming creature.

All in attendance took great pleasure in peeking at the fish inside the bucket on our fireplace hearth. After the excitement died down, my husband took a seat by the fish, affectionately named “Finn” by our daughter, and started hosting some party games.  

Halfway through the first game, Finn decided he wanted a change of scenery. He lept from the bucket, splashed my husband’s leg a bit and then flopped his little six-inch body on the hearth and down to the floor.

Hilarity ensued. Our house was full of screaming and laughing and jumping around the living room until Finn was caught and securely back in the bucket.

Many times I’ve felt just like that fish. During each move to a new city, in the midst of every child-rearing season, during the start of new jobs or different church transitions, I’ve felt out of my element, swimming around a bit lost, not having a safe place where I felt I belonged.

Sometimes it passed quickly. Other times that lonely feeling hung around for quite some time. Just like our little Finn, I flailed and flopped from one thing to the next, trying to find a place where I fit in.

I know I’m not alone. I was talking with my oldest daughter last week about the drama of high school and why people act in ways that hurt others. She came to the conclusion on her own that we’re all just looking for a place to belong.

“I guess everyone feels alone in some way,” she wisely concluded.

This idea of belonging is explored in Brené Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.” I was first introduced to Brené’s work during a church retreat several years ago. We watched her famous TED Talk on vulnerability and shame, and it hit a nerve. I  was in counseling at the time and remember talking at length during my next appointment about the concepts Brené shared and how they related to my own journey.

What I appreciate about Brené’s approach is that she is a researcher and a storyteller. She describes stories as “data with a soul,” which deeply resonates with how I view the world. She is not afraid to embrace the paradoxes that exist in life and is willing to explore concepts about human nature that are often hard to pin down.

In this particular book, Brené uses the metaphor of braving the wilderness to find connection to both yourself and others. There are four practices of true belonging that she describes in the book (and I’ll let you check out the book for those as I don’t have enough space here to do them justice). I was most intrigued with her thoughts on the importance of what she termed “collective assembly,” which are moments that bind us with others by shared emotion and experience.

I recall being glued to the TV with my fifth-grade classmates at Mt. Zion Intermediate School when the announcement was made that the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And 15 years later, I remember coming together as a staff at the church where I worked to pray and search the web to find details about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Both these memories are bound to others in these collective moments that stunned our nation.

But these moments often occur on a more intimate level. In my own life, I think back to last fall when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I will always remember being in the Riveras’ living room when Kris Bryant threw the ball to Anthony Rizzo for the final out of game seven. There were hugs and high-fives and “W” flags waving. It was a night of joy and celebration with family and friends that I will never forget.

On the flip side, showing up in a person’s time of need also deeply binds us to others. After Rachel had her wisdom teeth removed last week, a dear friend stopped by our house with dinner and sat with my drugged-up daughter for a while so I could run to the pharmacy. I didn’t ask for any help; she simply showed up and was available.

This co-called “ministry of presence” has spoken volumes into my life. And I am fortunate to have several friends who practice it on a regular basis. It is what encourages me to be vulnerable, allowing my true self to be seen.

I used to think that finding the right group of friends or getting plugged into the right job or volunteer position would help me feel like I belong. While having true relationships and meaningful work is a big piece of thriving in life, Brené’s book re-affirmed what I’ve been working through the past few years: true belonging is an ongoing practice of learning how to be present with others without sacrificing your authentic self.

This is hard work. It takes courage and patience and vulnerability to connect deeply with ourselves and others. But I am discovering that it is worth the search.

“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
– Brené Brown

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