Where do I belong?
Perth is a city of immigrants and like so many others, I often suffer from 'immigrant malaise'. How many of us think, at least occasionally, 'I don't fit in here' or 'Where do I really belong?' I don't want to return to where I came from, and yet I never feel quite at home here either. Perth is a glorious city and Australia really is a land of opportunity, but I'm still missing something.
I once read that 17% of the world's population in the last century had been refugees at some stage. They had to flee their homes to save their lives. Nowadays, I imagine at least half the people on Earth are immigrants. Some of us travel halfway round the world to start again (and again and again), while in poorer nations people migrate from the countryside to the mega-slums of the cities.
Like many people my age, I grew up in a 'real' community of people and place. Nearly all my twenty or so closest relatives lived within five miles of each other in Wellington, New Zealand. I played in the streets with other children of the neighbourhood. The forest and ocean were just a few hundred yards away, and only a couple of miles from Parliament House itself. I could have easily spent my whole life within a large, ever-deepening circle of friends, neighbours and acquaintances. And yet I left. So did everyone else my age.
Later, in my 'back-to-the-land' phase, I almost succeeded in living the Arcadian dream. About three hundred people, mostly young like myself, lived in and around a small village on the edge of a spectacular harbour. Gardens and orchards grew prolifically. We lived and breathed nature. We helped each other out and seemed to have abundant leisure. Even the smallest children roamed freely through the village, and doors were rarely locked. The inevitable feuds were minor. Yet after ten years in Paradise, I left, and so did the most intelligent of my friends.
Any community, be it that of a family, village, sports club, religion or nation, gives a sense of belonging and security, but the price can be high. Beneath the bonhomie and togetherness lies a deep insecurity: 'I like (or want or need) you, but do you still like me?' Even the most benign tribe needs much face-to-face grooming and reassurance to stop it from disintegrating. Community members can be very demanding, and they often call on arcane, unwritten laws to keep the group together. Many tribes demand conformity ("Show you're one of us"), and others use intimidation and violence to maintain loyalty.
Community has always been an evil as much as a good. One fundamental purpose of any tribe is to be able to defend itself and attack others. Wars would be impossible without tribal loyalties, and many nations only discover themselves as nations through bloodshed.
'No man is an island', said John Donne. We run in packs, like wolves, and there is no such thing as a healthy lone wolf. Unless we have good connections to at least one or two other people, we wither away. Loneliness rates alongside smoking and obesity as a contributor to morbidity and early death. Although we appear to be free-standing individuals, we need other people for nearly everything we do, even thinking.
The first tribe we know is just me and mum, and then me, mum and the rest of the nuclear family. If we're lucky, that little tribe will expand to include neighbours and an extended family. Hilary Clinton said "It takes a village to raise a child", but alas, where has even that kind of small village gone?
Fortunately, there are other tribes waiting to receive us. There is school, then our select group of friends, then the first lover (the tribe of two!), and then the readymade tribe we find at work. We naturally outgrow certain tribes and seek out new ones, but we can't do without them altogether. It is often quite hard to join and to leave them, but without some kind of tribe to anchor our identity we feel very uneasy indeed.
Sooner or later on this journey, we discover a horrible fact of geography. No matter how precious your lover or best friend or family is to you, if you just shift a few miles away, it all starts to fade. I'm sure many relationships fall apart because it takes just fifteen minutes too long to drive between you and him or her.
This partly explains the pain of the immigrant. We fly thousands of miles from home. We leave our country for work and a better life, and we're often rewarded far more than we ever dreamed possible. Yet although we find new tribes, the tyranny of that kind of distance means that our old tribe rapidly dies for us. It remains in memory but with all the vitality of cut flowers or pictures in a photo album. With effort, it can be kept more or less alive, and periodically revived, but it lacks the natural vigour it once had.
My girlfriend told me that when she left her village in Wales, she felt, and was treated, as if she had betrayed and abandoned her family. Since they weren't going anywhere, they felt her departure as a 100% loss.
I've returned 'home' to visit many times, and my heart often aches at the simplest of things. The curve of a road, the cold wind off the ocean, the fresh leaves on a native shrub, a certain indefinable air hanging over the city, the local accent and local characters. Though I left thirty-five years ago, it still feels intensely familiar in a pit-of-the-stomach kind of way. I see it all mirroring a ghostly image of the 'me' I would have become had I stayed there.
We are now unlikely to ever live physically close to all the people we want in our lives, and to long for that kind of utopia leads to despair. Community in the old sense of a continuity of people and place over time is largely a thing of the past. We still need community but it is a much more subtle, nuanced and variable commodity than we ever thought.
It makes more sense to see community as an ever-changing series of tribes and sub-tribes. Our tribes can be small or large, temporary or permanent, implicit or obvious, and we are likely be part of several tribes at once. Most of us ideally want at least one intimate companion, plus a circle of friends and acquaintances, plus some satisfying work usually done with others, plus leisure activities that nourish us. We may also need some connection to God or Nature or to our inner self, however we understand these concepts.
These tribes may be quite separate from each other. In fact, we tend to move from one tribe to another all day long. We typically pass from home, to work, to friends, to recreation, to solitude, and we can easily have too much or too little of any of those. Most of us connect to one or two of these tribes but not all. We might have the intimate lover but have lost the
family, for example. We may be materially rich and consort with people like us, but have lost contact with nature or our inner selves.
Furthermore, an ideal community is where you have the right mix of the right kinds of tribes for just the right amount of time each. Too much time with people you love can be dreadfully oppressive. Too many conversations go on far too long.
If we feel lonely, we may seek out people or groups who seem to think like us. In doing so, we are more likely to find people who can promise an instant community so long as we think like them. Communities such as nations or cults or social movements give us the satisfaction of joining something noble, but they tend to obliterate our individuality. Large communities love team players, and are often implacably hostile to any solo voice.
If we feel profoundly out of touch, however, it can be far more useful to reestablish the community of one. Many people are alienated from themselves without realising it. They are lonely for what other people can't provide anyway. Amid the whirlwind of modern life with its cornucopia of distractions, they are unwilling to face the naked truth, or sheer discomfort, of who they are. They find their bodies and minds troublesome or just plain boring in comparison with what Hollywood and the shopping mall can offer.
Any one of us is actually a small community of personalities. We change during the day according to the weather and the company. We are not consistent: sometimes we behave a certain way, and then quite differently a few hours later. It makes practical sense to regard these shifting mindstates as separate personalities within us.
Philosophies and religions have long tried to differentiate these personalities. Freud said we have id, ego and superego mindstates. Transactional Analysis divides us into impulsive child, rational adult and authoritative parent. Jung says we consist of conscious and unconscious minds, with many sub-personalities that he called the 'archetypes'. Religion talks about body, mind, spirit and soul, and so on.
However you understand yourself, happiness ultimately depends on knowing and getting on with your own inner community, and a person who is at home with him- or herself has a better chance of feeling at home anywhere.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2005