STORY OF BELONGING
I wrote Kobus off before I met him. I spoke to him on the telephone, when trying to arrange delivery of my registration forms before cut-off. Right after that, I called my friend, who had been encouraging me to get into the coaching and facilitation space and said, “I’m not sure about this; I KNOW I will learn nothing from this guy because he has a thick Afrikaans accent.” She said that I should stop procrastinating and just get this under my belt to give myself permission to do this work.
I reluctantly conceded and felt certain that I would be spending my time silently correcting his English, as I was wont to do in those days and that was one of my kinder thoughts. I had also made a harsh judgment and association between accent & intelligence, accent & acceptance, accent & identity. And because most of you already know Kobus, and have been trained under him and have experienced his masterful, wise and compassionate teaching, you know that those were my famous last, arrogant, words.
But before we get to that happy ending, there was more.
I walked into his training space in February 2013, and met a group of strangers. Suffice to say, bar 2 others, this group were mostly White and Afrikaans speaking. To deepen my resistance, we had to speak to each other in dyads within an hour of meeting, and in one of the opening dialogues, I had to sit opposite a giant of a man. I subsequently learned, that not only was he Afrikaans-speaking, but an ex-rugby player, and a famous one at that. I had little knowledge about rugby so I did not recognize him or his legend. I simply registered a giant White Afrikaner. Theuns Stofberg grew up in a place, which in my childhood and early adulthood was named Orange Free State. This was a place, in our history, where at one time, as a resident of South Africa (notice I did not say citizen), and as a person of colour, I would not be permitted to stop over, without a permit. Can you imagine the assumptions I had about him?
And wait, there’s even more
As we introduce ourselves to the group, I discover that most in the room, Kobus included, have a theological background and working context. I am an atheist. Can you imagine the stories I made up about that? Can you hear the scream of my silent narrative, “I don’t belong here.”
Belonging equals acceptance. It means I see myself in you and that I can identify with you. In its purest form, to belong means, that we are in relationship with others, that we are connected to others, that we are not alone. Peter Block describes belonging as “the opposite of thinking that where-ever I am, I would be better off somewhere else”. On that February morning, I definitely felt that I would be better off somewhere else. Five years later, I call that giant Afrikaner man my friend and I live in deep gratitude that I belong to this community.
It is through the lived experience of belonging to this community, of the philosophy of Imago, of Kobus’s teaching that I learned that our difference is not dangerous. This concept is something that I need to re-learn every so often, in my personal and professional life, when I am faced with someone who thinks, reacts and feels differently to me, and it feels dangerous, disrespectful or dehumanising. I have to intentionally recall the words “ when we create safety, our difference ceases to be dangerous”. This kind of belonging means I do not have to mute or kill off parts of myself to be accepted and it is the hallmark of co-created conscious relationships.
Every one of us has a story to tell about belonging and alienation in family, friendship circles, social and professional groups. Take some time to reflect on the cues and conditions you look for, to signal that you belong. What do you need and what do you give to create a true experience of belonging? Does it feel risky to show up as yourself? What price have you paid to belong and what has been the reward of belonging?
How did my experience change from disconnection to belonging? I stayed in the place of pain and faced what was in front of my face, which was complex and layered; I had to face my own assumptions, resistance and prejudice and I had to re-write the script. And all this was happening parallel to the deep personal work that I was doing. And the deep personal work I was doing was only possible because these White Afrikaners created a safe space for me. And I know that there was a parallel process happening for every other person in that room, as they engaged with me and they engaged with each other. There is a beautiful quote, of unknown origin, that explains how we, in the Imago community, find belonging with each other.
“Be around the light bringers, the magic makers, the world shifters, the game shakers. They challenge you, break you open, uplift and expand you. They don’t let you play small with your life. These heartbeats are your people. These people are your tribe.” –Unknown
Belonging to a community is not all champagne and roses and the Imago community is no exception. We struggle to find each other sometimes and we have had some hard conversations in our board meetings especially, bravely questioning our own authenticity, consistency and capacity for creating safety for dissenting and diverse voices.
We reflect on the notion that not everybody feels that they belong and that reciprocally we don’t always create spaces for people to belong. There are hard conversations that we are yet to have fully; some of us have begun to dialogue and grapple with identity politics within the context of race, gender and privilege. Our deepest purpose is two-fold – to find each other first and after we have done that, to make a contribution to our country that will heal the divisions and the pain caused by the politics of race and gender identity, class and privilege.
We have a painful relational history in this country and as Imago practitioners we have an incredible contribution to make towards its healing. In our last chapter meeting, we began thinking about using the Imago framework, specifically the childhood development phases, to create layers of understanding around race relationships. If the State is the ultimate custodian and guardian (parent) of its citizens (children), we thought we could begin to explore the historical quality of attention and care given to its various children who have different colours, gifts, needs, wants etc. Who was allowed to safely attach and to explore and what did the structures tell us about our rights, our identity and feelings of competence? Who felt visible and heard? What was our relational understanding of and attachment to each other? We thought we could apply our insight about inter-generational pain to understand where we are today? We need more voices for this thinking and for this work. Are you with us?
We also recognize that in the process of belonging, of forming a tribe, by simply claiming group and community identity, we inadvertently create otherness. We have a powerful Imago dialogue in the facilitation space, which cleverly surfaces how we either encourage conformity or create otherness. We use the sentence stem Who belongs to us must…… to uncover the implicit value system experienced by people in an organization, community or group. When we get these answers we get clarity on what impacts the experience of belonging.
When we get these answers, we also begin to understand how the assumptions and the implicit values that are alive in a social system create tension and disconnect between an individual and a group. We begin to understand the push and pull between group expectation and individual freedom; that there is often a personal price to be paid, to belong.
As we prepare for 2019, we would love your answers to this question. click on this link, email@example.com to take a few minutes to share your experience and assumptions of belonging to our community.
In February 2013 my answer to this would have been
To belong to the Imago community, one must be White, Afrikaans-speaking, Christian, polite, serious and agreeable.
Two years ago, after a particularly hard board meeting, which left me making emotional judgments and conclusions about group identity operating in shadow, feeling compromised and having deep ambivalence/resistance about belonging to a group, my answer was:
To belong to the Imago community we use the dialogical process to control the conversation and shut down hard dialogue
November 2018, I say, to belong to the Imago Community, one must simply SHOW UP. Use your voice, be an atheist or not, be a Christian or not, have fun with each other, hold yourself lightly, hold each other respectfully, be annoyed, be intentional, disagree, dissent, make room, listen, be curious, reflect deeply, share- your work, your thoughts, your feelings, your fears, your struggle, your triumphs, grieve, celebrate, leave, come back. Be Human.
I belong. I have found my tribe and I love them hard!
If you re interested in joining Imago Africa contact El Marie on firstname.lastname@example.org.