The Limits of Belonging
A robust sense of belonging depends on our relationships, our place, and our stories. Place is probably the least loved of the three.
A New Day for the Neighbourhood - Part 2
Limits are a feature, not a bug.
I’m moving into a bigger apartment this summer. Normally it would be good news to get two more rooms, a more spacious kitchen, and an extra balcony in Montreal. But the move is bittersweet. My family will get more space, yet we’ll be losing our neighbourhood, and with it the neighbours we’ve come to know and the familiar paths, features, and faces we’ve learned to love.
We’re trading place for space which, while a necessary trade, is one that we’ll grieve for a time.
Of course, I can keep in touch with friends and old neighbours, and will have plenty of reasons to visit our soon-to-be-former neighbourhood. It will, however, cease to be my place. Encounters with its people and fixtures will be planned, and will no longer play the same role in its unique rendition of the sidewalk ballet. This may all seem a tad dramatic, given that people and the good stuff produced by places, like restaurants and shops, are never more than a tap away.
But are they really?
The social web, promises to connect people across time and space, instantly, any time and anywhere. This is different from the older, terminal-based internet of the home-computer era. Back then, before widespread mobile computing, the internet was a place you visited, like the cinema or arcade. Now arcades and cinemas are dead, or nearly so. Instead of going to a place to watch a movie with friends, we can watch peak TV on the bus or the back of an Uber. That this is a markedly less good experience than the cinema doesn’t matter because it plays into the logic of our moment perfectly: more, for less, anytime, anywhere. Want not; also, deny thyself nothing.
So, are the physical limits of space, like God before them, dead? Last I checked, I have a body which resides on a particular street, in a particular neighbourhood of Montreal (itself a particular city). My ability to instantly send this newsletter to readers across borders and oceans doesn’t eliminate or even override my physical situated-ness. Some of my turns of phrase may be influenced by the French of my native Québec. It’s also likely that a heavy snowfall could keep me indoors with more time for writing. Even more idiosyncratic might be how my work is disturbed by the need to quickly shovel out neighbours’ cars because the highly specific demands of municipal snow-clearing schedules.
So, as someone publishing ostensibly place-less writing on the internet, I remain unavoidably situated, especially if I don’t pretend to live in New York City or any other powerful place. It’s why I constantly out myself as writing from Montreal. I don’t have a view from nowhere; I have a view from here. Is this something to be resisted, this rooted in-place-ness, or are particular places, even unimpressive places, good? More importantly, what do places have to do with belonging?
A Place To Belong
Belonging is a multifaceted experience. Eric O. Jacobsen writes in Three Pieces of Glass that a robust sense of belonging depends on our relationships, our environment, and our stories. If there’s one of these three that people believe we can drop or downgrade in value, it’s probably place. It’s easy to think, hey, I’ve got my friends, family and way to communicate, and I’ve got a way of looking at the world that helps make sense of my life, why should geography limit my options? It’s a fair question, especially with remote work boom we’re experiencing during the pandemic. But nostalgia for (reasonable) commutes points to a problem: Placelessness is deeply unsettling.
In order to be in any place on a whim, we find that we go nowhere. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled with working, socializing, consuming media, and even worshipping in the spot during COVID lockdowns — my couch. Oddly enough, the lockdown life and the jet-set are surprisingly similar in the thin experience of belonging they offer. Both lifestyles are missing the full spectrum of relational belonging. “To feel as if we belong somewhere,” writes Jacobsen, “we have to have network of relationships at the intimate, private, social, and public scales.” Digital tools allow us to communicate with our established intimate and private connections, these are our closest family and friends, but they do a poorer job of connecting us at the social and public levels. A jet-set cosmopolitan in the 1980s or 90s, by contrast, would probably have struggled to maintain strong intimate and private connections while likely establishing the looser connections associated with social and public relationships. These would’ve been airline ticket agents, hotel staff, and transitory business connections. The full spectrum of belonging is best experienced within the limits of a relatively static and human-scale place.
More and more of the places we encounter suffer from the placeless qualities of malls and airports, and there is a segment of the population that aspires, wittingly or not, to be people from nowhere. Drew Austin, who writes about urbanism in the Kneeling Bus newsletter, describes people from nowhere “rubbing elbows with locally-rooted individuals and scenes but oriented toward a network of airports, Ubers, and interchangeable coffee shops.” It’s the orientation here that matters. A placeless orientation doesn’t question the logic of Amazon: more choice, faster and cheaper, not to mention hassle-free. After all, that logic enables the (thin) freedom of placelessness. A locally-rooted orientation doesn’t see the barista in the interchangeable coffeeshop or the grocery store cashier as a source friction to be eliminated with mobile ordering or self-checkout. To be locally-rooted is to see these inconveniences, as they’re often perceived, as vectors of relationship and the means of belonging, which depends very much on giving yourself not just to anyone or anyplace, but to someone and somewhere.
Serendipity vs. Outcomes
Public and social relationships, like those you would have with the cashier at your closest pharmacy or the parents of another kid in your child’s class, thrive on serendipity. These are the relationships of unplanned encounters, like seeing another parent from school at the grocery store. Now, these loose connections are not quite the high-value relationships of the private and intimate variety. You’re probably catching up about shared but mostly trivial experiences (“How crazy was that PTA meeting?”) or maybe even simply locking eyes and acknowledging each other (the barista smiled at me on the street, that’s nice). But these seemingly shallow experiences actually contribute to a deeper sense of belonging. And these encounters are more likely to happen in human-scale environments like neighbourhoods, provided we actually spend our time out in the neighbourhood. In sharp contrast to the digital spaces we give so much time to, we are more likely to answer the demands of our bounded surroundings and the embodied relationships that exist within those limits, even the relatively inconsequential ones. Richard Doster, writing in byFaith magazine, commends investing in local communities on similar grounds:
“These relationships define us and our responsibilities. They affirm the truth that we can’t live virtuous lives in the abstract. That it’s not enough to be against racism in general. Or to fight the concept of poverty. We can’t do good or be good when we’re detached from the people we see, talk to, live beside, and wave to at the grocery store. And from those we choose to avoid.”
Facebook and other social platforms are placeless places, if they’re places at all. And it’s not clear to me that the ability to be in contact with a great multitude of people in digital spaces is a meaningful type of freedom. For one, there is very little serendipity online. This wasn’t the case of the early web, which traded in hyperlinks, fixed addresses, and small self-moderated communities. Much of what passes for serendipity on the social web are in fact outcomes, not chance encounters. The algorithms organizing the social web and digital media are prediction machines — you were meant to see that post made you smile, or frown. And the efforts we pour into these digital spaces often benefit distant and predatory interests. In very real ways, our investment in placeless digital spaces drain physical localities of the creative and relational energies that rightfully belong to particular places and the people who live, work and play there. “We must acknowledge that place still matters at the most local levels,” writes Drew Austin, arguing against the wholesale despatialization sought by digital media. He reminds us that “physical place,” limited though it is, “is a bulwark of freedom, a way to decouple from absentee forces that have goals for you that you may not even know about.”
It’s time to consider that being untethered, a free-floating individual consumer exercising maximum choice, might not be the “freedom” we actually. Rather, if belonging is a fundamental human need, physical place, with all its limits and familiar routines, might be the place to start looking.
The Faith Angle
What kind of places are churches, and what are they doing to foster and practice belonging? I quoted Eric O. Jacobsen near the top of this newsletter, and he's an excellent resource on this question. Jacobsen is one half of The Embedded Church podcast, which explores the potential for churches to create belonging within the particularities of their neighbourhoods. They recently finished a season focusing on key books in what I like to call the "sidewalks canon."
Speaking of local... What might a localist take on social media look like? There are some smart people doing research that's worth following.
And finally I'd like to commend this piece I wrote for Clerestory Magazine. Think of it as the narrative version of some of the principles I'm exploring in this series.
On The Blog
- In Praise of Data Caps, a Dialogue (short read)
- Books Notes: "The World Beyond Your Head" (light summary)
Hi, I'm Matt – Thanks for reading Good Words! I run this newsletter on a patronage model, which means the best stuff goes out for free to everyone. If you'd like to support my work and get some perks, you can subscribe here. Not ready to commit? You can also buy me a beer.