You come into your belonging in childhood. You belong to your parents, siblings, communities. You belong to your churches, your schools. You belong to the provincialities of your domestication—the streetlamp at the end of the cove, that well-worn spot on the couch, the third pew from the back. Your first experience of life is that of belonging to a known.
I grew up thirty miles north of Memphis, on a fenced five acres grazed by three appaloosas. I rode my bike down gravel roads and through fields into gullied woods. I played in my barn’s hayloft. I spent evenings after dinner on my front porch swing. I climbed mimosas along the fence line and looked down on life through the pink blossoms on green-fanned leaves. The sloping pasture that gyred down into a shallow pond long vacated by catfish. I was expected at church every time the doors were open. I made a macaroni ark at Vacation Bible School.
The details are different, but your story of belonging is the same. The familiarities of your rearing hold you…until they can’t.
Eventually, you come to realize that the belonging into which you’re born can’t serve as the longing to which you’re called. Jutting out of the boundaries of your belonging in jagged undeniability are the protruding edges of desire. So, you’re given the labyrinth of choice, cast by grace into the unbounded actualization of deciding, to echo Tolkien’s timeless way of putting it, what to do with the time that is given you.
Ideally, then, life becomes the cultivation of your truest self. The hope is that every decision, healthy or unhealthy, toward desolation or consolation, makes bolder the signature of your soul. You want to speak differentiated words and create individuated things from a liberated heart. The journey from the cradle of your belonging to the maturation of your longing proves a quest for those wellsprings and vistas of authenticity.
However, life is not without its paradoxes. You come to find the longings that drew you out eventually lead you back in. What held you in childhood often becomes what you seek to hold as an adult. What you first belonged to, in turn, comes to belong to you.
C. S. Lewis tells the childhood story of his brother Warnie fashioning together a toy garden made from twigs, flowers, and moss. He describes it as his first acquaintance with beauty. He couldn’t have known then that his brother’s toy garden would take up residence in the heart of his imagination. We never know what finds belonging in us until much later. The rest of his life bore his desire to return to that first beauty. Every story of longing he would come to tell was a story of the desire to return. Eliot says that at the end of all our exploration we arrive back to the place we started with new understanding. Like the prodigal son, we break out of early belonging only to find that what we belonged to has come to belong in us so intimately that we must return to it.
Perhaps the greatest choice you can make is to decide how you tell the story of your return, to say, make, or enact that which brings you nearest to your belonging. If, like the prodigal, you can come to yourself, then you can follow your desire to the place you were first embraced. Your desires have brought you through the disillusionments of ambition to the place where the gifts of your belonging open for you.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke says,
“even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.”
You wander the labyrinth until you find it lets out where it began. The choice of what to do with the time given you means returning to the garden of early loves.
If our great stories have revealed anything to us, it’s that the exploration for our truest selves won’t be easy. The jewel of belonging hides in the perils of your past, and the journey is sure to scathe. You will bear the marks of your return. If you can herald your experience of formation, then, finally, you might wind your way to authenticity.
In Dibs in Search of Self, an account of the emergence and healing of a traumatized child, Virginia M. Axline, psychologist and founding mind behind play therapy, reflects on the makings of an authentic self—
Perhaps there is more understanding and beauty in life when the glaring sunlight is softened by the patterns of shadows. Perhaps there is more depth in a relationship that has weathered some storms. Experience that never disappoints or saddens or stirs up feeling is a bland experience with little challenge or variation of color. Perhaps it’s when we experience confidence and faith and hope that we see materialize before our eyes this builds up within us a feeling of inner strength, courage, and security. We are all personalities that grow and develop as a result of our experiences, relationships, thoughts, and emotions. We are the sum total of all the parts that go into the making of a life.
It could be that you’re here to tell the truth about all the fragmented gems of your belonging and your great journey of desire to collect them. And if your longings amount to nothing more than to inspire others to make the return to their own belonging, then all of time’s whips and scorns will have been worth it to you. Once you accept the blessed amalgamation of your making, surrendering the ways you follow your desires to their truths of their first nurturing, you can herald the depths of your selfhood, unafraid to bring up its treasures. After all, you’re told that you can live life in such a way as to shine like a city on a hill. You’re told that you can rearrange the world’s great mountain ranges. You’re told we will live forever. You’re told, despite how jagged the parts, you are being made whole. You’re told every desirous path you choose to take ultimately winds back to a Garden of your belonging.
The featured image is courtesy of Sam Keyes and used with his generous permission for Cultivating.
Corey is a poet, writer, speaker, and educator. He holds Master’s Degrees in Religion, English, and Counseling, and a Ph.D. in Literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, and the forthcoming The Serve the Work: Stray Thoughts on Christ and Creativity. Corey has written articles and given talks on subjects ranging from C. S. Lewis, the theology of creativity, the neurology of the imagination, and the power of story to heal life’s wounds.