Not Like the Others
When my son D.J. was a youngster, he and I watched Sesame Street together. His favorite segment was called “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.” The segment displayed four items–could be animals, tools, shoes, kitchen utensils, geometric shapes, whatever. We were challenged to identify which of the four items did not resemble the other three, given a few moments to choose, then were invariably saluted with an exclaiming “Right” as the outlier disappeared and the similar three gathered into a tidy, intimate group. I appreciated the conceptual skill the segment reinforced: distinguishing same and different is a bedrock mental operation. But, truth be told, I felt a pang of sympathy for the one that, as the segment’s opening song declared, “just doesn’t belong,”–the one so ignominiously disjoined from the band of brothers and cast into a nether world of invisibility.
One morning this past winter, while staring out the kitchen window, I saw four deer, aligned nose to tail, bolt from the side of my house, dash through my backyard, and veer down a garden path along the treeline. My first thought was “You don’t belong here.” My second thought was, “They could say the same about you.” My third thought, crazily associational, was the 1962 Jimmy Clanton song “Venus in Blue Jeans,” specifically the lines “A teenage goddess from above/And she belongs to me.” How, I wondered, could a divinity, an ethereal creature, a “very special angel,” belong to, be possessed by, someone. The effusions, perhaps, of a hormone-addled teen. Still, it seemed a contradiction.
My fourth thought was about the word “belong” itself, how it contains a contradiction when applied to persons, how in linguist-speak it’s a contranym, a word with two opposing definitions. “Belong” can mean both “property of” or “adjunct to”–a possession or belonging–and “a relation of membership”–having a place in a community. One definition dehumanizes; the other humanizes. One reduces persons to things; the other enriches persons by enhancing the possibilities for their self-knowledge.
It is common for persons wrapped in and made rapt by love to declare, as does Mr. Clayton, that the beloved “belongs to me.” However, the deep-dwelling intensity that phrase is meant to suggest masks frightening implications: ownership and the power to dispose arbitrarily, a belonging without togetherness, a hijacking of another’s capacity to be and do what it is in them to become, to venture, to achieve. Belonging to another is to become a determined being, the one and only answer to an equation. And to allow oneself to belong to another, to willingly accept being a belonging, is to forfeit one’s dignity, to render oneself absent from the relationship, to make oneself unworthy of the togethering mutuality of being that genuine love involves. As a character in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon says, “It’s a bad word, ‘belong.’ Especially when you put it with somebody you love. Love shouldn’t be like that. . . .You can’t own a human being. . . . You’re turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can’t value you more than you value yourself.”
We are social beings, and, in belonging to a community in a relation of membership, we fulfill a psychological need so basic that even slightest rejection, even an averted glance, is painful. In a community we experience, as Hannah Arendt says, “the joy of inhabiting together with others a world whose reality is guaranteed for each by the presence of all.” There is a partaken-ness and a synchronicity in belonging to a community: we share structures of feeling and valuing, frameworks within which to think and debate; we make our ongoing story a part of others’ ongoing stories; we see and are seen, one subjectivity answerable to other equally answerable subjectivities. And in that mutual recognition and reciprocal acknowledgement, we more fully realize ourselves, for who I am inevitably involves who others see me as.
And yet, and yet: I can’t help thinking that we do not, should not, belong altogether to the communities to which we belong. There is that about us that “is not like the others,” too singular to cubbyhole, a something that resists any pomade that would slick us in place or regress us to the mean. The danger of belonging to groups is disappearing into its tribal impulse, purchasing its intimacy at the price of its agenda, mistaking its shade of truth as the truth, feeling pressured into silence should one hold a view contrary to the consensus. In a sense, this danger comes to resemble that of belonging to someone.
We need to be nimble, to watch our footwork, keep our edge in view, practice unstuckness, be both in and out. We do not want to relinquish the capacity for contemplative withdrawal, what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips calls “fertile solitude;” we do not want to lose the rich oxygen of our own inner atmosphere where the clarifying value of our own thoughts and the compressed intensity of our emotional convictions draw breath. Most importantly, we do not want to lose the most valuable of our belongings: the belonging to ourselves, the I that possesses me, the affirmation that is not self-centered but, rather, self-centering.