Finding Belonging When Your Freedom Is Sacred
I believe that the books we resonate with as children have quite a lot of say in who we become as adults.
I have never felt this to be more true than when my Danish husband, on our wedding day, brought up a children's book during his speech. This book was the book of my childhood in Southern Africa. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’d flipped through its pages. He used it to explain how my life had been shaped by my love of freedom and the desire to stay 'wild’.
For those who do not know it, The Cat That Walked by Himself is a simple little book about how animals first became domesticated. I read that book a thousand times growing up. It was my favourite. It made sense of the world I was growing up in, it made me feel that it was ok to be who I was, it made me feel whole and confident within myself, and it made me feel like this cat was my kindred spirit.
The start of the book sets the scene of a beautiful 'wild wood' where animals live on their own, wild and untamed. Woman sits in her cave making the 'blade and bone' magic that beckons all the wild animals to her. One by one they enter the cave and she bargains with each of them: in return for their servitude and loss of freedom, they are taken in, cared for, and rewarded with continued nourishment. The dog receives a lifetime supply of roasted mutton bones for guarding the cave and hunting with Man, the horse receives handfuls of fresh-cut grass for putting on a plaited hide halter and carrying Man on his back. All the animals give up their lives of freedom, except for the cat, who walks wild and alone, waving his untamed tail, purring:
"I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me."
In the end, the cat decides to make his own agreement with Woman, on his terms. He chases off mice and plays with the baby when Woman is busy, and in return, receives a place by the fireside and drinks warm milk three times a day. However, he is still the cat who walks by himself and all things were alike to him: neither good nor bad, just there. He lives by his own intentions, he roams the wild woods as he likes, and he is not enslaved by her attractive bargain.
How does this book help us with belonging and freedom as TCKs, ATCKs, army brats, immigrants and nomads?
Getting married can feel like domestication. Becoming a parent can feel like a taming. Settling into a new country can feel like loss of freedom. We have all given up something for the benefit of gaining something we believe is better for us.
I believe the Woman and Man in the book are representatives of the overculture we can experience in new hometowns. They are the societal pressures that dominate our lives by telling us we need to conform in order to be validated as a contributing citizen.
Sometimes this pressure comes from bargains like the ones the animals made in the book, to get a bigger house, a fancier car, or more material goods. Other times, it can come in the feeling that we need to act like someone else or post on social media in a certain way to be accepted in society and to feel validated. I think subtle but overbearing ideals are an overarching part of our collective consciousness, and although some conformity is necessary for adaptation, most of these ideals are 'one-size fits all' that in reality, do not relate very well to most of us.
The cat still contributes to the needs of Man and Woman by playing with the baby and chasing off mice but he does it on his own accord and with the freedom to go back to his wet, wild wood. He tells the Woman that he will not give up his wild self and instead of making a bargain with her, makes himself indispensable so that she simply can't say no. The cat finds a niche for himself. He creates a space for himself, but retains the freedom to come and go as he pleases.
This, I believe, is vital to life as a TCK. When we arrive in a new country, we need to learn the common practices and law there. We need to contribute to the harmony of the culture by being compassionate to its people and nuances. However, that does not mean we need to force ourselves to belong to its customs, its traditions or its overculture. We have our own 'wildness,' our own ways, and our own abilities to take the good from a culture, and leave out whatever does not resonate.
Our 'wild' can be found in our creativity, our art-forms, our writing, our cooking, our passion, our hobbies, our child-raising, our time alone. Our ‘wild’, and therefore our freedom, shouldn't be sacrificed for the false allure of fitting in, if fitting in is not what we truly want.
How do we find belonging, not for others but for ourselves?
We need to change the conversation about belonging and how it affects multi-cultured members of the world.
Belonging is described in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as one of the most fundamental human needs, but I wonder how relevant that is in today's highly migratory world. I agree that we need to find commonalities between similar groups of people, or in new landscapes to help us remember places we already know, but I feel that this is only the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to belonging.
If we decided that, like the cat, all places are alike, then perhaps our sense of belonging would be a more introspective element, and not a cultural or physical one.
The totem pole of my identity has been made up of many different cultures, life experiences and countries that I have lived throughout my life. I do not belong to any of them, but they belong to me. Therefore, I do not belong to anywhere—but I belong everywhere. A friend expressed her sympathy for me the other day when I said I didn't belong in Denmark. She assured me it would just be a matter of time before I felt ok again, that is was just about finding the right like-minded people, joining a pottery class or trying this new cacao ceremony in the city. I didn't have the heart to say that it was in fact liberation to feel this way and that I have an immense sense of fulfilment through this form of freedom. I embrace and am at peace with my unbelonging. It is the fruit of having curated myself from multiple cultures.
I feel like, for so long, we have believed that to belong is a form of external validation. If this is true, it will take a while for the rest of the world to catch up. Through learning how to belong ourselves, we can be pioneers in showing the world how rewarding unbelonging feels.