Let that word hang in the air for a moment, the concept filling your mind: who you are, just you, with nobody else to define or validate you.
What does it spark?
For most of us, alone evokes an emotional response. For some it is peaceful, for some refreshing. But for many, this concept is less than positive at best, and downright fear-inducing at worst.
Every year around this time I grow nostalgic. Summer was when I began by journey of studying abroad in Scotland. You’ll find a lot about that on this blog, and if my pen continues to wander back to this subject it is only because of how much that time meant to me, then and now. I won’t forget the feeling of settling into the never-quite-comfortable chair at the Chippewa Valley airport, my family on the other side of the glass, and being overcome with one feeling: this was it. I was alone, truly, facing three months in a new continent with nobody that I knew and (at the beginning) only my thoughts to accompany me.
It was an intriguing moment, certainly not anything I had experienced before. Part of me felt compelled to seize my phone or laptop and gather some sense of all the people who were not beside me. Part of me knew not to do that but to soak in the moment for what it was. And yet another part of my mind began to replay echoes of concerns I had gathered from people before my journey:
It’s such a long time.
You won’t know anybody there.
What if you have no community?
What if there aren’t people you can trust?
What if you change?
You see, for the preceding few years I had belonged to a tight-knit religious group where people didn’t really do things on their own. Not the big things, anyway. Most people didn’t just pick up and leave the country unless it was to experience an international branch of the same organization; people didn’t just move after college to a city far away because they found a good job there, at least not to a city where there weren’t already friends, family, or a sister church. People didn’t just start a lifestyle that looked notably different than the rest of the other group members. And so when it came time for me to jet off for the summer by myself, the well-wishes I received before my journey were laced with a thread of fear: because acting alone was something to be feared.
It’s been three years since my alone-journey, and I came out unscathed. But I came out changed (though I guess for some that’s almost worse). It was the single most invigorating and growing time I had had in my life, and was the only time when I had serious opportunity to consider who I really was. Who was Rae? Outside of her hometown, community, family, group of friends, college…as an individual, who was she really?
I had a great conversation with a friend where he shared a concept that greatly intrigued me: your greatest strength is usually also your greatest weakness. For example, the one who is passionate will encourage many and hurt many, the one who is kind will love greatly and be taken advantage of, etc. The key is to recognize your tendencies and handle them with wisdom. I’ve seen this strength-weakness pairing to be true not only in myself, on the individual level, but also on the broader scale of humanity. My personal theory (currently—personal theories are subject to change) is that the need to belong and experience love is both humanity’s greatest gift and greatest problem. At its best, this need forms the basis for friendships, marriages, communities, etc. Conversely, the need to belong and be loved is also at the root of terrorism, gang activity, cults, prejudice of all kinds, political polarization…I could go on.
The need for love and belonging is obviously crucial to the human experience. No matter how vulnerable it makes you feel to admit it, it is not something you can just shrug off as not applying to you. The need for love is indispensable to what it means to be human.
And people will do anything to get it.
When I really asked myself who I was, that need to belong was there. Having social connections is not the enemy; living without them would be vastly unhealthy. But elevating them to the status of ultimately defining who you are is also unhealthy, yet it is far too easy to do. The human need for a group of “people like me” is so deep-rooted that it changes who you perceive as being “like me.” Filling the need for love by throwing yourself into a prewritten lifestyle or ideology in order to surround yourself with people that think and speak and live exactly like you do is not the way to find belonging. Because once you get yourself into that kind of dynamic, getting out is harder than it seems.
In that kind of dynamic, your thoughts begin to change as they go through a filter of what your community thinks is right and what your community doesn’t agree with.
In that kind of dynamic, awakening to a desire to do something different with your life is extremely hard, as changing what makes you similar to those of your tribe can mean losing that tribe.
In that kind of dynamic, people feeling or acting “hurt” when you think and live differently than they have is expected manipulation.
In that kind of dynamic, vowing unconditional loyalty to a group means sacrificing your own unique personality, perspective, thoughts and dreams on the altar of the group.
And absolutely none of it is worth it. Because none of it is real love.
I came to realize a lot of this while I was in Scotland, mostly due to my own experiences but also supplemented by a social psychology course I took (specifically it was on the psychology of terrorism and war – if you want a sample of the research and theories I would check out this dissertation, if not for the whole article then for chapter four’s discussion of basic social psychology theories). What I saw in my times of traveling alone, meeting new friends at school, researching questions I had, exploring in a new continent, was not the echoes of fear I heard while waiting in that airport. It was the affirmation that who I was as an individual, unique person was good, and that contrary to the previous three years, I did not need the involvement in that tight-knit group to be happy and connected. In fact, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, I was thriving.
I was thriving because I had the freedom to grow as Rae, a one-of-a-kind creation, not an individual manifestation of a type.
I was thriving because I was surrounded by people who loved and accepted me for who I was, and saw my thoughts, opinions, and goals not as things to be amended but things to be celebrated.
I was thriving because no other human was trying to recreate me in their own image.
I was thriving because the need for belonging can really only be filled when you feel the fear of showing your true self and do it anyway.
Even though I had made some of my dearest friends and memories through that group, I knew I could be a lot truer to myself without it. And so, I drastically cut back my involvement when I came back to the U.S. And eventually I left.
I don’t regret the time and experiences I had before going to Scotland. Being spared the involvement would’ve meant being spared learning fathoms about myself and never encountering the training ground for the fight for freedom I want to engage my life in. But I am glad that my involvement was for a time and not a permanent lifestyle, and that hewn in the wild, independent, freedom-seeking land of Scotland was my own awakening to the liberation that so many hearts have yet to experience. I am glad I made my choice.
You also have a choice in how you will choose to live. How you will choose to belong.
You have the choice to assimilate to what your group expects of you, and you have the choice not to.
You have the choice to build a future that matches what your friends are doing, and you have the choice not to.
You have the choice to make changes to your present to live the future you envision.
If you’re afraid of making changes, afraid of what others around you will think of you, then feel that fear. It’s normal.
But don’t let it stop you.
I’m not saying that things will work out perfectly—you run the risk of being scrutinized, rejected. That’s the cost you will have to weigh. The further you venture into the wilderness of discovery, the fewer people you may find beside you.* This is not a call to shove people away or be unkind, or assume people aren’t interested in your new journey and hide it. But know that even in your most heartfelt seeking of the right path for you, you can’t force or inspire everyone to come along with you.
That’s okay. And you will survive.
But through it all you may discover, as I did, that there are people who will love you for you. Who you can feel you really belong with, without having to change or disguise who you are. Who you can really bond with, even if they would have never fit into your former “in-group.” Who give you the freedom to be yourself, and thereby, the freedom to grow. Perhaps you don’t know them yet. Perhaps you do. But to feel really loved and known, not for who people think you are but for who you really are, you have to be that real you first. You have to take the chance.
I miss a lot of things about my time abroad. Such an experience can’t be replicated, and the sadness of that specific journey’s finality still aches at times. But in a sense the journey I began in that vinyl chair hasn’t ended, because it was the start of a change in me that I am still living today.
I am happy to be in the place I am now, and more importantly, to be the person I am now.
Long live Scotland, the brave.
All my heart,
*Credit to David Hayward, The Liberation of Sophia
Have you ever left a group that was difficult to leave? What did you learn from the process? Have you found a new group that’s a better fit for you?