My daughter snapchats. Which means I snapchat. She snapchats me often and it’s funny, silly things that give me a little looksie into her day. I love it! I love seeing the things that make her laugh….and even the snapchats about test stress and gross high school bathrooms I enjoy because it means I’m included and clued in to her day to day. But today she sent me a snapchat that was maybe just cute and simple to her….but it made me tear up immediately.
The text of the snap said this boy, just a friend- not a boyfriend, made her a sign so that when she walked into the cafeteria she knew where to sit. The sign read “Olivia, sit here” with an arrow pointing to the seat. Simple, right?
Then why am I crying? Really? Man, am I just an emotional mess? Am I hormonal? Have I been day drinking or watching Steel Magnolias? Maybe, maybe, nope, and not today. Why did this simple gesture of harried high school scribblings on a torn piece of three hole punched lined paper make me cry, smile, and explode with hope for humanity at the same time?
Well, it’s because…it just struck me...really, isn’t that all we all want? All of us. From the womb to the grave we are walking this earth with an innate need to belong. We want it. We crave it. We need it. We want a seat at the table not a seat in the corner by ourselves. We want it as children lined up in gym class hoping and praying we aren’t the last kids to get picked for the dodgeball teams. We want it when we are pimply faced teens with mouths full of metal watching birthday party invitations get handed out and waiting to see if one of those envelopes (Lisa Frank bedazzled in my case) is for us. And you what? It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t end with high school or college. It doesn’t disappear when along comes love, marriage and the baby carriage. Even when we’ve created our own family that we not only belong in but lead with love and devotion…that nagging need is still there. As much as I know in my heart that the young teenage version of myself desperately needed and would have benefited so greatly from that simple act of inclusion in a crowded cafeteria -I feel it even more in my mid thirty year old mama bones that I still need and crave that ‘come on over’ hand wave, ‘hey how are you?’ text, and invite to wine Wednesday.
We live in a day and age where we are more connected than ever. We can make phone calls to anyone anywhere without being tied to a cord in our kitchen or counting the minutes and dimes as they pass by. We share pictures and video online every day and we text each other from the bathroom- don’t lie and say you don’t. I know you do. But all of that potential for connection also opens the door to the potential for exclusion. The mean girls of the high school halls have turned into the mean people of the internet that are far braver behind keyboards than they ever would be in person. And it’s not just rotten comments or judgy texts behind your back that bring us down. It’s the nagging self doubt that is planted as we compare the reality of ourselves and our lives as we view day in and day out the perfect, curated, filtered pictures of others that have been handpicked to showcase only the best and brightest moments from their days. We wonder why aren’t we living that life? Why am I not “that” person? Why don’t I belong in that Instagram feed with 10k plus followers and that trending hashtag? Man, my life doesn’t look like that and it never, ever will. And if “that” is what garners hundreds of likes and double taps than surely what I actually am will never belong.
If you do a quick Google search (how did we do anything before Google?) you’ll find several studies showing a correlation between the rise in social media use and the rise in depression, anxiety, and suicide. It’s a scary thought. But it’s a thought we need to think. We need to stew on it, carefully consider it, turn it over in our hands and absorb the intricacies and details. Think about these truths and facts and how they relate to ourselves, our daughters, our friends and the strangers we meet that aren’t yet our friends.
I could cite scads of scholarly articles that show the relationship between one simple thing and a reduction in depression...but I think you already know what it is. You’ve experienced it on both sides, I would guess, and you’ve observed it in your children and community. It’s belonging. When we belong we have purpose, comradery, social identity and a built in support network. The troubling times you inevitably encounter seem easier to manage when you have the help of another’s perspective or maybe even their own personal experience with the metaphorical mountain you are climbing. Belonging shows you that you aren’t so different from everyone else. That your imperfection and weirdness isn’t what makes you abnormal it’s what makes you normal! Belonging shows you that you are worthy of love and friendship which means so much more than “likes”. It also means that you contribute to the lives of others and that you add value to their journey. To belong is to help each other carry on.
This incredibly crucial part of the human experience can be confusing...multi faceted with social dynamics, cliques, family and socio-economic backgrounds to consider. Complicated much??? Yes! It can be. But it can all start with something very, very simple. Think back to your days as a wee one. Or maybe a recent memory of your own little one.
Today as I dropped off my tearful and shy three year old for his few hours at preschool he clung to my leg and hid behind me. You see….Owen, he can’t talk. He’s a vibrant and humorous little boy with big emotions and even bigger ideas. And it’s all trapped inside a body with a mouth that try as he might he can’t get to work. He actually goes to this school specifically to get speech therapy a few times a week. Other things you should know about my O-man- he hates baths and Lord don’t even try washing his face or his hair! He wipes his nose on his sleeve no matter how many times we correct him or offer tissues and he is usually rocking sweatpants because “real” pants make him say “Ow! Ow!” and mama has decided against fighting that sensory battle. Basically he rolls up to preschool looking like a hot mess every single time and he can’t even talk to say “Ya, I had a rough night fellow preschooler dudes! We’ve all been there, right?”
Now, what do you think happens at these drop offs? Other than the aforementioned leg clinging? Do the other preschooler boys and girls stand to the side and give him sideway glances. Do they move their snack bags of goldfish over to take up more table space and show him that there’s no room for him at their table? Absolutely not! They giggle at his dog sweatshirt and they beckon him to join in their game of chase. They show him the latest and greatest (probably gross) thing they found outside at recess. They laugh at his silly facial expressions and wordless jokes and guess what? Half of them have boogers on their sleeves and refuse to wear “real clothes”, too. They show him that he belongs! They try hard to find ways to understand him and he exerts immense effort to be creative and find ways to communicate with them. And when I pick him up he is ALWAYS playing away happily with his peers. This afternoon, despite his normal tearful goodbye this morning, he was so happy playing he didn’t want to leave. It warms my mama heart to see my special boy belonging but I know these days of blind inclusivity are numbered for him. I worry what his future holds as he and his peers cross over from unassuming preschoolers to the wary, self aware and socially aware young children, teens and adults that we all become.
My daughter’s snapchat today reminded me of how easy and simple belonging can actually be. And the incredible impact a small gesture can have. We need to follow this example. Follow the little ones examples. Remember a time when it was easy to be friends and you’d ask any strange kid at the park to play. Think back on the days when dang, we were just so happy to be alive and running around like banshees that we didn’t even notice the weirdness of the new kid and the different clothing of our neighborhood friends, or worry about our own potential weirdness or clothing choices. We ALL need to belong and yes it can be complicated but it can also be oh so simple. Wave someone over and include them in your group of moms complaining about the latest school fundraiser at dropoff! Comment on your girlfriends Facebook post about her sleepless night, “Hey girl- been there! I’m about to go get coffee! Can I drop you one?” Show people the truth about who you really are so they know they aren’t alone in their brokenness and eccentricities. Be brave enough to put yourself out there to try and belong and also to draw others in….because the benefit of belonging far outweighs any risk you have perceived or imagined. Be honest. Be inclusive. Be kind. Rip a piece of paper out of your three ring binder and write “YOU! You sit here!”