What Does It Mean To Belong?

There is a tension for me, not simply in the idea of belonging, but the word itself and its two definitions. That of property, and that of intimate relationship. The first thing that many people think of, when they think of belonging, is family. Unfortunately, family represents both types of belonging. As a child we don’t get to belong to ourselves. We belong to our parents, to our schools, we belong to the state. We do not have legal autonomy. And we are often out of control of the circumstances in which we live. If home is chaotic, if school is chaotic, there is no escaping the chaos, and we often begin to believe that the chaos belongs to us, and we to it. As an adult I have felt that much of my struggle is not simply in finding where I belong, but learning to undo the belonging that for so long has been mine.

Until recently I believed that to belong somewhere was the same thing as being intimately from a place. The way the place of my birth informed how I interact with the land around me, with the people I engage with daily, the kind of foods I enjoy most, but also the kinds of lived experiences I’ve had, and have shared with my first community—the community I was born and raised in. I believed that the people and places that we belonged to were out of our control. I was born in Taos, New Mexico, and spent the first 18 years of my life there. I returned frequently for years: to visit family, to live for the summers, to spend time with my friends from high school who remained very close knit for years after graduation. I shared lived experiences with these friends that were often very unique or dissimilar to people I would meet outside of New Mexico. It made the belonging feel special in some way, and also vital, to be with people who “got me.”

But the problem was that a lot of our shared experiences were difficult in nature—dysfunctional family, dead friends, social coping skills that were inevitably destructive.

We were a microcosm, a labyrinth of the different traumas, and trauma responses we had learned at home, from each other, and in abusive relationships, and it often felt like we were perpetuating the negative aspects of the places that we belonged to with each other. Growing up in chaotic places, and loving and being loved by chaotic people, I had believed my whole life that I belonged in situations where I often felt unsafe. And instead of finding solace, or escape from this in my friendships, I often found this belief being reinforced.

This is something I have only begun to question in the past few years. In large part because there was a lot of genuine love in my community, and in the places I belonged to. People will say things like, love can’t coexist with fear, with violence, with chaos, but I know this to be unequivocally untrue. However, there does not need to be a lack of love in order to leave behind a situation, a person, or a place. Only a desire for safety, for healing. It is difficult to decide that you no longer want to belong to a community that you belonged to for so long, especially when you feel a sense of responsibility to and for it. To uproot, to leave behind. Sometimes we don’t have to leave, and we are able to heal and change together. This hasn’t always been the case for me, and what I’ve found as I unwind some of my oldest threads of belonging, is that I want to belong to people who make me feel safe, and that I want to learn how to be a safe person for others. What I want to believe about belonging now, is that it has to do with intention, with desire, with care, and with choice.

By Magda Manning
2022 Artist In Resident and 2023 Summer Faculty
(read Magda’s bio)

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