I’m a qualitative grounded theory researcher. The goal of grounded theory is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving exist- ing theories. In grounded theory, researchers try to under-stand what we call “the main concern” of study participants. When it comes to belonging, I asked: What are people trying to achieve? What are they worried about?
The answer was surprisingly complex. They want to be a part of something—to experience real connection with others—but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power. Participants further reported feeling surrounded by “us versus them” cultures that create feelings of spiritual disconnection. When I dug deeper into what they meant by “spiritually disconnected,” the research participants de- scribed a diminishing sense of shared humanity. Over and over, participants talked about their concern that the only thing that binds us together now is shared fear and disdain, not common humanity, shared trust, respect, or love. They reported feeling more afraid to disagree or debate with friends, colleagues, and family because of the lack of civility and tolerance.
You can’t develop a theory on true belonging without addressing how our increasingly polarized world shapes our lives and our experiences of connection and true belonging
Reluctant to choose between being loyal to a group and being loyal to themselves, but lacking that deeper spiritual connection to shared humanity, they were far more aware of the pressure to “ fit in” and conform. Connection to a larger humanity gives people more freedom to express their individuality without fear of jeopardizing belonging. This is the spirit, which now seems missing, of saying, “Yes, we are different in many ways, but under it all we’re deeply connected.”
As I was defining the main concern related to belonging, I went back to The Gifts of Imperfection to look up the definition of spirituality that had emerged from my 2010 data:
Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.
I kept reading the words “inextricably connected” over and over. We’ve broken that link. And in the next chapter, I’m going to show you how and why we broke it. The rest of the book is about fixing it— finding our way back to one another.
I named the main concern of participants in the current research true belonging. And given the definition above and the data, there was no question that a large part of the struggle for people seeking true belonging is spiritual. This is in no way a religious struggle around dogma and denominations, but is instead a wide-open, hard- scrabble effort to stay connected to what binds us as hu- mans while navigating an increasingly divisive and cynical world.
Continuing on the path of grounded theory, I focused the research on these questions:
1. What is the process, practice, or approach that the women and men who have developed a sense of true belonging have in common?
2. What does it take to get to the place in our life where we belong nowhere and everywhere—where be- longing is in our heart and not a reward for “perfect- ing, pleasing, proving, and pretending” or something that others can hold hostage or take away?
3. If we’re willing to brave the wilderness—to stand alone in our integrity—do we still need that sense of belonging that comes from community?
4. Does the current culture of increasing divisiveness affect our quest for true belonging? If so, how?
What emerged from the responses to these questions were four elements of true belonging. These elements are situated in the reality of the world we live in today. The theories that emerge from this methodology are based on how we engage with the world in our everyday lives; they’re not hypothetical. This means you can’t develop a theory on true belonging without addressing how our increasingly polarized world shapes our lives and our experiences of connection and true belonging. I didn’t intend to write a book about belonging set against a backdrop of political and ideological chaos. But that’s not my call to make. My job is to be true to the data.
As you take a look at each of the four elements, you can see that each is a daily practice and feels like a paradox. They’re going to challenge us:
1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.
3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
4. Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart."