Belonging and mobile membership


So I was thinking, I stayed in Number 15 for 56 months, of course I’m going to feel a little lost now that I no longer belong there. And I don’t really feel as if I belong here … in Benevolent Light. Then I realized I don’t have much of a choice: Eventually I would have to buy my own house or apartment where I will know I belong.

The next thought almost immediately shoved the previous one aside: One cannot place so much value on physical address as your “place in the world”. Why not? As a principle, it can’t be applied universally and across all historical periods of human habitation on this planet!

Our earliest ancestors were unfamiliar with the concept of private property. They constantly moved from one place to the next. Every time the seasons changed or animals moved to greener pastures, they allowed the fire to burn out in their cave, perhaps gave their charcoal drawings on the walls a final glance, made sure all the older people and all the children were on tow, and then they started walking. And each individual member must have had a sense of how and where they belonged, did they not? What would have given them a sense that is more or less similar to the feeling that modern individuals have when they know they are where they “belong”?

The answer lies in relationships, in community with others.

Every time our ancestors tightened their furs and gripped their spears, they travelled in groups. There were husbands and wives, children, brothers and sisters, and maybe even a few cousins. The relationships that each individual had with the other – confirmed by daily contact – gave them a sense that they belonged to something bigger than themselves. What they had was a mobile foundation of membership and belonging.

If, during the current period of my life, I was involved in an intimate relationship, the change of address would have had a significantly less erosive impact on my “sense of belonging”. Why? Because the relationship would have given me a stronger foundation than physical address.

However, location still matters, doesn’t it? Even if I were involved in an intimate relationship with the love of my life, it wouldn’t be the same to live in Moscow than to live in, say, Pretoria or Johannesburg. Where she comes from and where I come from will of course also play a role. If she was a born and bred Muscovite she would certainly have felt more at home in Moscow than me, and I would have felt more at home in … well, any of the places in South Africa where I have fixed my pictures to a bedroom wall.

Environment and physical address do play a role in the extent to which you feel you belong. But I believe that relationships – close, meaningful relationships – play a more significant role, and provide a more solid foundation.

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Relationships are institutions to which you belong. Examples that will illustrate this point include Romeo and Juliet, Spice Girl and Soccer Player, the Pope and the Catholic Church, Brand and his Apartment …

Romeo and Juliet is more than just Romeo, or just Juliet. Being in a relationship gives you a more concrete sense of belonging and identity than being alone. It’s one of the reasons why people feel so lost and vulnerable when a relationship comes to an end; when the institution that made you part of something bigger than just you, crumbles.

Of course, family relationships also provide you with a sense of belonging and identity. Why do I have pictures of my family on my wall? Because the pictures are visible symbols of membership to something bigger than the single me. Friendships also count under this classification. In an intimate relationship with another adult person, however, you experience a more tangible and definitive confirmation of belonging to something larger than just the single you.

The same value that the pictures on my walls provide, can also be found in rings exchanged at a wedding ceremony, photographs carried around in purses and wallets, and various other articles that might not mean anything to someone else, but for the two people who share an intimate partnership, these articles are symbols of their mutual recognition of membership.

To conclude: 1) Relationships – and especially for the adult person, intimate relationships – are institutions to which the individual belongs. 2) These institutions are not limited to a physical location, and are present wherever the person finds him- or herself (if not always in physical terms, certainly in ways that affect how the person feels and thinks). 3) These institutions are larger than the single individual, and contribute strongly to the consciousness that a person has of his or her place in the world.

Finally, I can only speculate what difference it would have made to my life here in Taiwan if “home” was here. Suppose my parents, my two sisters, my brothers-in-law, uncles and aunts, and cousins all resided on this piece of earth, would it still feel like I’m in exile? Would I still have clung so resolutely to the concept of SOUTH AFRICA AS HOME?

Certainly there will be people who will take a different position on this point, who will talk about culture and landscape and climate and things like that. It’s true that I miss the mountains, the sea, the wide open spaces, supermarkets where people speak Zulu and Sotho and Afrikaans, where you can buy biltong and milk tart with the same ease as you can buy bottled kimchi or rice wine in this part of the world. But all these things are salt without savour if you’re missing the main ingredient of meaningful personal relationships in your life.