Despite how busy we all are planning, teaching, and then planning some more, our leadership team still takes the time to read and discuss a selection of books as a group. Some of these books are directly related to education and some are more broad in their focus, drawing from other social sciences. All are chosen to provide us with insights as to how we might improve our practice and serve our community better.

This week we discussed Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. In it, Dr. Brown explores what it means to belong. As a parent of two children, a 12 year old and a six year old, I often think about how important it is for them to feel that they are connected to others and belong somewhere. I think many parents of children who move in and out of different communities and cultures also think about this so I thought I would share what I got out of Dr. Brown’s book.

Dr. Brown is a big fan of Maya Angelou but she found herself completely disagreeing with what Dr. Angelou said in an interview in 1973:

‘You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.’

On the face of it, I also disagreed with this statement. How terrible would it be if we belonged nowhere? Wouldn’t we all just be lost people? 

Given that Dr. Brown’s thinking was so heavily influenced by Dr. Angelou, she spent a lot of time thinking about Dr. Angelou’s words. After reflecting on her own experiences as a young person trying to fit in or belong somewhere, she realized that Dr. Angelou was right. In 2010, in The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brown defined true belonging as follows: 

‘Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.’

In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brown revised her definition:

‘True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.’

These words mean a lot to me as a parent and as an educator. As an international parent, I worry whether my children will feel like they belong to the communities that they live in – both in New Zealand and abroad. I hope that they will ‘fit in.’ As an educator, I want all of our students to feel like they belong to our school community. I hope that they feel that they ‘fit in’ too. 

Dr. Brown is saying that in trying to ‘fit in,’ we often try to present ourselves as people that we are not – perfect. And every time we try to ‘fit in’ with a new group, we might try to present ourselves as a different type of perfect. If true belonging is found in a feeling of connection to others, how can we truly belong if we are all busy trying to be someone we are not. It is madness!

For us to belong, we must all present our ‘authentic, imperfect selves to the world.’ I have felt for a long time that our flaws connect us more than our strengths. I worry that in this age of the ‘selfie’ and hyper judgement, our children might be scared to be themselves in front of others. I worry that their yearning to connect will disconnect them further from each other.

As adults, we need to provide our children with the courage to be themselves. And to do that, as adults, we need to have the courage to present our imperfect selves to the world. We need to share our mistakes, and our real stories of success with our children. We also need to openly value the cultures, identities, perspectives, and experiences of all people. This is something that we are committed to at ISY. In fact, this is a key part of our working definition of compassion.

I believe that a sense of common humanity is based on an appreciation of each other’s culture, identity, perspective, and experience and an understanding that none of us are perfect. I believe that the stronger this sense is in a person, the more connected they will feel to those around them and, in the words of Dr. Angelou, it does not matter if they are ‘no place, every place, no place at all.’

Brown Brené. Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House, 2019.