Do you have a group of people you trust with your deepest, darkest secret—people in front of whom you might allow yourself to be vulnerable? When was the last time you felt like you really belonged?
Did you feel that sense of belonging in your high school soccer team, band or drama club? Did you get that feeling in the midst of a middle school Dungeons and Dragons game?
Do you have a group like that now, where you feel like you truly belong?
Belonging is a mysterious word. It evokes a feeling of comfort, acceptance and security, while it joins the words be and longing—which roughly mean existing, yearning, desire. Curious! Even more curious, though, is the secret to finding a sense of belonging. Let’s examine that secret.
When you think about the last time you felt like you truly belonged, what feelings come to mind? Perhaps you felt a sense of safety and acceptance, a feeling of not being judged.
Most of us come to recognize acceptance after our adolescence as a feeling that cannot be appreciated until we have tasted the risk that comes with self-awareness and a sense of shame. Sometimes, embarrassing moments can best teach the value of a sense of security—the delight in being able to let your guard down in an environment where we feel free from criticism.
Now imagine yourself an adolescent, learning those lessons on the internet—a community with an inescapable, unsleeping, unregulated culture of cutting criticism and censure, providing a disembodied voice to anyone with access to it. Baha’u’llah, when referring to the true seeker, wrote:
For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 265.
The smoldering fire of social media produces shame in such volume and intensity that participants can be emotionally burned and scarred beyond recognition. Social media, then, with its rampant criticism, has afflicted us with a crisis of belonging. We turn to it for community, but find little comfort or kindness there.
But there is hope! What is culture, but a series of repeated behaviors? The Baha’i Faith includes many teachings promoting a sense of belonging. For example, the Baha’i teachings strongly discourage shaming others with harsh criticism and advocate for developing a “kindly tongue.” In his Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah wrote:
In truth, the hearts of men are edified through the power of the tongue, even as houses and cities are built up by the hand and other means. We have assigned to every end a means for its accomplishment; avail yourselves thereof, and place your trust and confidence in God, the Omniscient, the All-wise. – p. 77.
The Baha’i teachings warn everyone not to treat any other soul in unkind ways:
Consort with all men … in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If anyone should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15.
Nothing promotes that sort of kindness and wisdom more than face-to-face gatherings, where people can socialize and be socialized. The Baha’i community Feast—a meeting held every 19 days in every Baha’i community—offers a regular opportunity to gather, share and socialize with fellow believers. Much more than just a worship service, it provides a wonderful, built-in opportunity to pray and read from sacred writings together, to consult frankly and forthrightly with each other, and to be with souls who try their best to refrain from criticism and practice acceptance:
As to the Nineteen Day Feast, it rejoiceth mind and heart. If this feast be held in the proper fashion, the friends will, once in nineteen days, find themselves spiritually restored, and endued with a power that is not of this world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 91.
So how can we each find acceptance and belonging? How can we meet and build a coalition of close, true friends to create a sense of belonging?
In any group, you only have control over one person: yourself. That means the creation of a sense of belonging begins with you; that is, you must consistently try to practice these key Baha’i teachings of a moderate and kindly tongue, of refraining from criticizing others, and of forbearance—not taking offense:
Show forbearance and benevolence and love to one another. Should any one among you be incapable of grasping a certain truth, or be striving to comprehend it, show forth, when conversing with him, a spirit of extreme kindliness and good-will. Help him to see and recognize the truth, without esteeming yourself to be, in the least, superior to him, or to be possessed of greater endowments. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 8.
To keep aloof from people, to shun them, to be harsh with them, will make them shrink away, while affection and consideration, mildness and forbearance will attract their hearts toward God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 54.
Some groups may never coalesce into unity, inclusion and a sense of belonging. But when a group of people begin with spiritual teachings that prohibit backbiting and harsh personal criticism; when they encourage kindness and compassion, and when they show forbearance, the journey toward community and belonging becomes a much easier one.