on freedom and belonging

“Freedom is perhaps the ultimate spiritual longing of an individual human being, but freedom is only really appreciated when it falls within the parameters of a larger sense of belonging. In freedom is the wish to belong to structure in our own particular way…. We are strange, difficult creatures who long for both freedom and belonging at the same time, and often run a mile when the real thing appears. That is the frontier on which we dwell.” 

The above quote is taken from David Whyte’s beautiful book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity – one of several books I have read over the past few years, to do with work life and vocation. It resonates following a conversation with a dear friend who is going through a rough patch, a what-is-the-point patch. This is a friend for whom I have the utmost respect, whose gifts in the world include kindness and intuitiveness and creativity, intelligence, discernment, good humour and a healthy dose of oh-fuck-it-all. His work in the world is subtle, poetic and deep-reaching. And yet he too has his what-is-the-point patches. 

What after all is the point of our work in this world, whether it is a paid job or a private endeavour? I mean, beyond the obvious: to earn our living, to keep ourselves afloat in this strange circumstance we find ourselves, of being alive in a particular time and place. What nonsense is this, to seek freedom through the bondage of wage-earning, to seek belonging among strangers? 


That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Walt Whitman

We bathe ourselves in our identity: our personal style, our preferences, our skills and talents, our favourite band/film/book/food, the colour of our sofa. Is this our verse? I would argue not: I would suggest that our verse must be in dialogue with others, and is therefore all about relationship. When my friend asks what-is-the-point I must respond to him that our connection as friends is the point. 

Another friend once shared her dilemma: “what am I here for?” And my tongue-in-cheek response to her? “You’re here for me!” But within our relationship to one another, this really is the point: to be here for one another. And it’s so true: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou) Our real work in this life is to be there for one another, to make one another feel valued, respected, loved.

But back to freedom, and belonging. We often associate freedom with our rights – the right to do what we please, in our own time. I remember a friend once sharing an insight: that we think we have rights, but we have only responsibilities. Again this was about relationship, about the responsibility we hold to one another as cohabitants in this world. When we invoke freedom we often forget about our mutual responsibility, to other people and indeed to all other beings with whom we share our place on Earth. Which leads of course to belonging. We all belong here together – there is not a single creature alive who elected to be born and to participate in life; we all just landed up here. 

So how do we respond? This is our work, I reckon. And the work is about how we relate to others, with whom we fall in step while we are here – whether friends or family members or colleagues or strangers or plants or animals or even rocks or water. The work isn’t about finding or securing our own belonging, it is about extending belonging to others. And we are all free to choose this approach to life.

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