I’m reflecting on our sense of belonging to other people, the different contexts within which we interact with others, and the different ways in which different generations relate to these different contexts.
One of the catalysts for my thinking is Joseph Myers book The Search to Belong where he very helpfully challenges conventional wisdom among church planters regarding creating community. But I love to search out connections and tease out patterns, so I’m weaving in ideas from all over the place...
Broadly speaking, there are four contexts or spheres within which we interact with other people. These are the public, the social, the personal, and the intimate.
Public belonging looks like this: are you a Liverpool supporter, or an Everton supporter? Do you have a Blackberry, or an iPhone? Do you use a PC, or a Mac? I am an outsider to most of these particular communities, as it happens; but if you choose to identify with any of them, you belong to a particular group of people, at the public level. It has a bearing on our identity that is loose – you will never even meet most of the other members of that group – but is far from superficial.
Social belonging looks like this: how do we bridge between public and personal belonging? How do we decide who we would like to get to know better, to be friends with or to learn something from? The social context – whether small or large, face-to-face or virtual network – is the context where we present ‘authentic snapshots’ of ourselves: that is, we present something about ourselves that is genuine but partial, that gives the other person an idea of what it might be like to know us. And we choose, depending on the context, what we present: at a workplace networking event, we will more likely present what we do, or have done; at a recreational occasion, perhaps our family connections, or hobbies.
Personal belonging looks like this: having identified someone whose company we enjoy or from whom we want to learn, we begin to share more personal information about our lives. However, what we share is filtered: we don’t share everything, nor even everything about the things we do share. A level of trust is built up, while an appropriate level of distance is maintained. These can become lasting friendships, regardless of geographic separation or infrequency of seeing one another.
Intimate belonging looks like this: here we are known as fully as we are known by any other human being. Here we can be ‘naked and unashamed’ – whether physically or emotionally. We can only have very, very few such relationships: otherwise intimacy itself is devalued. If everyone knows my every thought and feeling, where do I have to go with my wife that marks our relationship out from any other?
There are unwritten rules for engaging with each of these contexts, and we might experience discomfort – or cause someone else to experience discomfort – where these rules are violated. Consider how easily we take offence when a cold call selling double-glazing brings the public sphere into the personal sphere of our home, uninvited. On the other hand, other rules allow us to transgress norms: at the public swimming pool, we can wear very little in front of strangers; a professional-client relationship allows us to discuss intimate matters – our health, our debts – with a stranger, where we might not feel able to discuss the same issue with those with whom we have a genuinely intimate relationship.
Although our personality will have a bearing on which spaces we interact within with greater ease or discomfort; and on how we relate to others in each space; and in particular make a difference at the boundaries where we draw the lines between each space: broadly speaking we need to be able to operate in all four of these contexts in order to experience healthy community.
And we need to relate to the greatest number of people at the public level, somewhat less at the social level, somewhat less again at the personal level, and to only a very few at the intimate level. If not, community comes under too great a strain – imagine the physical time and emotional energy it would take to get anything done if every relationship was an intimate one, if I stopped to have deep and meaningful conversations with every person who crossed my path in the course of a day...