Imaginary Communities

The “broccoli tasting” experience went a lot better this week, with one transgression only. While this is definitely better, I do find that I may soon be facing a new challenge: accepting days when things don’t go as planned, without accepting too many of them. Wherever you look for advice on changing habits, you will inevitably find that you should not beat yourself up too much about giving in to temptations, and that is fair. But how often should you do that? Where do you draw the line between being forgiving to yourself and enabling yourself? I still haven’t found that line, so I will muse about that another time.

What I did want to share is a small success we have had this week: the premier of our joining a club as a family. While you may say that this is a waste of money (after all, many gym memberships go paid and underused, if used at all), this has an added meaning to me. This is the beginning of a feeling of belonging. Ridiculous? Not so much if you look at the big picture.

I am a traveller. I left my home country more than 11 years ago. I have lived in 3 foreign countries in the meantime, and during those 11 years, the most I have spent in the same house has been 3 years. Most commonly, I would spend just 1 year in the same accommodation. That does not help you build roots. Of my 5 years of undergraduate and graduate school, I have literally spent every single year in a different school in 3 different countries. That really does not help you build roots. I have met loads of great (and not so great) people in the meantime, but I have never put down roots.

During my time away, I have come to regard my country of origin as the one I belong to the least. No offence to my friends and family who still live there, but I don’t belong there; I probably never have. I grew up dreaming of seeing the world; I spent my high school years trying to find where I could go to college (my dream at some point was to study Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, a programme which required you to learn Arabic and spend a year in a Middle Eastern country). Days after I left for my first long-term stay abroad I knew I never wanted to go back. I didn’t necessarily want to stay there for the rest of my life, but going back was not an option. As it turned out, I stayed there for only 2 years before I moved on to a different country.

But after hopping around Western Europe for a while, I started to realise that I may need to belong to something after all, and that that something may need to be a physical place. I do belong to my new family. No, my family-in-law does not own me, and neither am I a proper member of it. I am talking about my new family that my husband and I have created, that is what I feel I belong to. But that is not fixed in space. And, like I said, I feel like a spatial belonging may be what I am missing.

Being the committed traveller that I am, I have learned to form relationships, but also to leave them behind. There are very few people in all the countries I have lived in that I am still in touch with. I value those relationships a lot, but I don’t really mourn any of those I have lost. Would it be nice to be friends with more people? Sure! Is that easy? Absolutely not! While I can get along with people of many different cultures, I can get close to very few of them. We usually end up clashing pretty badly on a given subject. It can be religion (my lack of does bother certain people, although I have never tried to convince anyone that my way is the best), it can be alcohol (I consume little of it and I am uncomfortable around drunk people, which makes hanging out with certain individuals very difficult), it can be my views on raising children (yeah, those no sugar madness kind of thoughts that I have are very unpopular among parents around me), it can be my sense of humour (it is not very conventional, it is quite inappropriate sometimes, which doesn’t mean dirty, and so far I have found only three people in the whole world with whom I can make jokes without censoring myself). So how do you belong when you clash with almost everyone around you?

To try to make up for this, I have been thinking for a very long time about community and what I could do to be part of one. A community does not necessarily need all its members to agree on everything; but they do need something in common. Humans have always lived in communities, no matter how small, because they shared the same interest (survival at first) or values. But today’s communities are so big, that they are hardly communities anymore. Geography alone is a very weak common denominator. How much do you have in common with the people in your neighbourhood? How many of them do you know? I don’t really know mine. I don’t know what they do, where they come from, where they want to go in life. But I do feel like I am missing out. I wasn’t raised in a culture of community, of valuing everyone around you for who they are and including them in your life. My upbringing was based mostly on exclusion of the “less worthy” (of my time). And this is a very hard habit to break.

But this is also why I love my new illusion of belonging to something. And more importantly, I want my children to grow up feeling like they do belong. I want them to understand that they will have very few best friends, with whom they agree on almost everything; but that they can have lots of friends with whom they share only a few things. And that those things and those relationships are valuable, that they can help them be connecting dots in their community. And that even the smallest things they share and the smallest relationships they have can bring meaning to their lives.

P.S. For those who don’t recognise it, the title is a (poor) adaptation of a wonderful book, “Imagined Communities” by Ben Anderson. Read it if you haven’t!

*Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pexels

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