Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash
By Morella Devost
A sixth-grade field trip. I remember it clear as day. I was so excited! We got to wear street clothes instead of our uniform of pleated navy skirts, white buttoned shirts, and burgundy pullover sweaters. If you can’t tell already, I went to a private school for the daughters of wealthy families in Venezuela. Except I wasn’t one of them. My very hard-working mixed-culture parents simply wanted me to attend the best bilingual school.
That day, I dressed in a super cute outfit of checkered pants and shirt (it was the ‘80s!). I loved it, but it took me all of five minutes to realize it stuck out like a sore thumb. All the other girls were wearing ankle-length jeans, oversized shirts with shoulder pads, and colored Reebok sneakers. WTF? “How do they ALL know what to wear? How do they all have the same sneakers?” My twelve-year old mind seemed to wonder. That day, I became hyper-aware that I felt like an outsider, while desperately wanting to fit in.
But what’s the big deal? It’s such a common experience for so many kids, isn’t it? We survive it, don’t we?
The truth is that a deep sense of belonging to our community is at the core of resiliency and emotional well-being. This is not just true in middle school. It starts in our families of origin, it continues through our formative years, and it shapes our ability as adults to overcome adversity.
In my personal story, my non-belonging ran much deeper than school. In my immediate family, I was the only child of my parents’ marriage; I had four half-siblings from Dad’s first marriage. They grew up in Vermont and had a very different upbringing from mine. I saw them only about once a year until I moved to the US, when it finally dawned on me that I felt like an outsider in my own family.
Non-belonging can also be ancestral. In my case, feeling like an outsider started with my grandmother’s tragic childhood. You see, she was one of four children born out of wedlock in early-20th-century Caracas. When my grandmother was three years old, her mom died of the Spanish Influenza, and her father was tortured and killed as a political prisoner of Gomez, the dictator at the time. Their four children, considered “illegitimate” back then, were also now orphans. Nobody from their immediate families stepped in. They were mercifully picked up by a notable dentist, who gave them a home while placing them up for adoption. The siblings were separated, and my grandmother was the last to be adopted when she was eight. This story of origin meant that throughout her life, she was constantly reminded that she should be ashamed of “her past.”
Why does my grandmother’s story matter? Why does your grandmother’s story matter? They matter because our community of origin matters. It shapes us for better and for worse. And we now know through the field of epigenetics that intense emotional experiences leave a blueprint on the proteins that surround DNA. They are then handed down from one generation to the next, along with the color of your eyes and the texture of your hair. Your ancestors’ and community’s adversities shape you.
All of it matters. And yet, even as our stories of origin can leave a painful legacy, our ability to find connection with a community can also drastically change the impact those experiences ultimately have in our lives and on future generations.
The research of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, renowned psychiatrist and author of the book The Body Keeps the Score, is showing us how community can help heal trauma. Dr. van der Kolk has found that a strong sense of belonging to a group or family is a powerful predictor of resiliency and of the ability to overcome adversity. In other words, feeling that we belong, that we are valued and cared for, is a necessary ingredient for healing the heart. Without that sense of belonging, it’s much harder for an individual to recover from traumatic experiences.
In fact, it’s that sense of belonging that explains why people who live through natural disasters typically fare so well. After a disaster of epic proportions, communities often come together like never before. The pain is shared, and so are the resources that help everyone get back on their feet. The bonds strengthen.
Long-lasting, unhealed trauma is held in place by a deep feeling of being alone, forgotten, and forsaken. It is present in war trauma (i.e., a soldier experiences horror and terror while separated from his unit) and sexual assault (i.e., a victim’s safety is threatened if she were to speak of what happened). When people feel alone, unseen, unvalued, powerless, and forgotten, deep trauma can set in place.
Healing can come from finding community. Dr. van der Kolk has studied how indigenous communities respond to trauma. Many of their ancestral traditions involve dancing and singing together, surrounding the person who experienced a traumatic event. It’s the touch, the connectedness, and the movement that allow the person to move out of the shock of the experience. He highlights how singing together naturally creates connectedness. Joining voices is a literal expression of being in tune and in harmony with others. In this way, it’s a natural balsam for those who were traumatized.
We’ve actually seen examples of this in stories emerging from Italy and New York City during the Coronavirus confinement. In Sienna, a man set off a spontaneous balcony singalong in a visibly deserted street. In Manhattan, various neighborhoods erupted in a communal singing of New York, New York. Even with social distancing, the joining of voices reminds us of our shared humanity and brings comfort to our hearts.
At this time, when we’re experiencing monumental collective adversity, it’s important to find those moments of community where we come together to rise strong — exactly as it happens through natural disasters. And on a personal level, whatever may be the challenges or trauma that are yours to tackle, finding community support is fundamental for your long-term well-being.
The question to ask yourself is this: where do I feel that I truly, deeply belong? You can look for that sense of belonging in all sorts of places. It needn’t be your family or even your current group of friends — though those are fantastic, if you do have strong bonds there. You can also find deep belonging in a choir, church, bookclub, volunteer organization, amateur theater club, and even at work. Importantly, find spaces where you feel you are an integral part of the group — where you feel seen and valued for who you are. I personally found deep belonging with my cousins as kids, my college rugby team, and my tight-knit group of Vermont friends. And of course, my family is fantastic, and I increasingly feel that I belong with them.
We are in this shared human experience together. We all need each other to ensure everyone’s wellbeing: yours, mine, our communities’, and the planet’s.
Morella Devost helps people turn their pain and challenges into their greatest source of strength. After receiving two masters degrees in counseling from Columbia University, she became a Clinical Hypnotherapist, NLP facilitator, and Reiki Master. Morella is a Venezuelan-Vermonter who works with people all over the world from her RV-office as she travels the US with her family. She is the host of the Thrive With Morella TV-radio-podcast show.
Facebook personal: @Morellad1