The world we long for is possible
Belonging is the art of caring for the whole
The mission of Building Belonging is to build a world where everyone — and everything — belongs. It’s a mission I take very seriously: it is what animates my actions every day.
But I’ve come to realize that most people don’t actually take this aspiration seriously. They assume it’s a nice north star, some utopian vision to aim toward, but they relegate it in their minds to the world of unicorns and rainbows: sounds great, but it’s not realistic. So when they engage with me about my work, we’re already talking past each other: they’ve already mentally lowered their sights, never actually engaging with the core inquiry animating my work.
I wonder if perhaps it boils down to one simple thing, which to me feels eminently achievable (albeit extremely difficult in the current context): The world I long for is a world in which each of us do our best, at all times, to attend to the needs of the whole: our own, each other’s, and the world’s.
Obviously it’s a huge goal, and objections/skepticism quickly go global and systemic. But if we want to imagine a world without coercion, a world where everyone belongs… I think we need to make it personal and practicable. So I want to focus today’s post on a simple interaction between two people, to illustrate what might be possible: can we care for our own needs, and those of someone we love… without privileging either?
First I want to make explicit a few core assumptions to lay the foundation for the topic I want to explore… because I suspect these assumptions are actually where the primary disconnect occurs.
TL;DR: It is not only possible, but deeply natural to care about trying to meet everyone’s needs: mine, yours, and the world’s. This belief turns on two interconnected assumptions. First, the world’s organizing principle is abundance, not scarcity: there is enough for everyone’s needs. Second, we are wired for collaboration and mutual care: we want to attend to each other’s needs. The primary domain of practice is in our loving intimate relationships: I believe we can learn to honor and care for my needs and yours together, without privileging either. This is what it means to belong, to be in interdependent relationship.
We can meet* everyone’s needs (from scarcity to abundance)
When I think about the biggest obstacles to the world I long for, I think our unquestioned assumption of scarcity may be at the top of the list.
I’ve come to think of our belief in scarcity as a sort of gravitational force: we rarely acknowledge it’s there, but it exerts an inexorable power constraining our sense of the possible. I don’t think there is any path to liberation — to belonging — that doesn’t include a fundamental shift in how we think about scarcity and abundance. Indeed, it may be THE most limiting belief we hold as a species, because to believe in scarcity is to view life as a zero-sum game… and from that place there is no liberation.
My thinking here is strongly influenced by the work of Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the art of Nonviolent Communication (I wrote about NVC and belonging in an earlier post), and the extension of his insights by Miki Kashtan, my favorite contemporary practitioner of the art. As Miki contends:
The assumption of scarcity is, at its core, a deep mistrust in life.
There are a few underlying premises here that need to be named:
Every human has a common set of universal needs: generative somatics talks about safety, dignity, and belonging, which I think is a useful place to start. NVC uses a “needs wheel” that provides a fuller picture of universal needs:
We all employ a variety of strategies and tactics to meet our needs (the need is the why, the strategy is the what: the need is safety and security; the strategy is building a house, e.g.).
In general, “People will prefer to meet their needs in ways that don’t harm others.” (This from Miki)
And here’s the hardest thing to wrap your head around — this core principle of NVC is perhaps my deepest core belief: “human needs are not in conflict with each other; only strategies can be in conflict.”
Embedded in that fourth principle is an assumption of abundance: that we collectively have the means to meet everyone’s needs. I unpacked this at more length in my post on the gift economy, recalling Gandhi’s line:
The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.
*At the broadest possible level (the basic material needs of all living beings in the world) evidence supports Gandhi’s contention: the earth has enough for everyone. And: of course it’s not quite that simple. The asterisk in the section heading here is this: I believe that collectively we are capable of caring about and attending to everyone’s needs… but I grant that there may be constraints within which we cannot meet everyone’s needs. Time is a major one: if everyone has a need to be heard, and there are 100 people and only one hour… well, we won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs. But we can care about those needs, and try to meet them: we can adjust the constraints (to take more time, to break into smaller groups, etc.)
For this is the all-important thing: we have to try. I actually think people are okay if their needs can’t be met (in a given context)… provided that people care, and that people try. If we don’t set that aspiration, or if we pre-emptively assume it’s impossible… then we have created a zero-sum space and thus the conditions for conflict: a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rosenberg explains why this matters:
No matter how big the issue, there will be peace if each party trusts that their needs matter to the other. On the other hand, no matter how small the issue, there will be war if one or both parties believe that the other party does not care about their needs.
We want to meet each other’s needs (from competition to collaboration)
This assumption is embedded within the first one, but I think the sequencing flows in this direction. Hostile competition (perceived conflict over needs) only makes sense within a zero-sum context. The idea that humans are oriented toward collaboration is both an intuitive statement that resonates with most of our lived experience… and one that flies in the face of received “wisdom,” particularly in western cultures. It turns out Darwin’s analysis was incomplete; our evolving understanding of human nature is far more sanguine than the Hobbesian “survival of the fittest” he imagined. I wrote an entire post on this topic, so won’t rehash it here. But the core truth is this: the origin and flourishing of all life on earth is predicated on collaboration.
This is a matter of biological fact at an inter-species ecosystem level (the symbiotic relationship between lions, zebras, and savannah grass, e.g.); I love this explanation from Sally Goerner:
The requisite balance of competition and cooperation requires we be clear that “competition” does not mean a ruthless dog-eat-dog struggle or a predatory zero-sum game with big guys destroying little guys, but rather a competitive striving for excellence taking place on a fair playing field within an overarching cooperative context.
But our evolving understanding also takes a more nuanced view of intra-species relations… e.g. among humans. David Wengrow’s new book (with the late David Graeber) is a tour de force shattering our narrow view of human pre-history, drawing on a rich array of sources from anthropology and archeology, for those interested in a deeper dive. William Deresiewicz summarizes:
Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring.
Their work offers a broader framework within which to understand Rebecca Solnit’s groundbreaking research on mutual aid, and how humans respond to disaster: near-universally, by immediately supporting each other. It’s the obvious response if your neighbor’s house is on fire: you grab a hose and help. Kelly McGonigal calls this the “tend and befriend” response, an expression of our deep and innate capacity for care (in contrast to the more common “fight or flight” response that we may be more familiar with).
Rosenberg goes so far as to call this humanity’s deepest need: to be of service to others. This whole podcast episode is breathtaking, but the section from roughly 38 to 44 minutes in particular is just… wow. There are three points he makes that I want to highlight here:
Our needs are an expression of life’s longing for itself: they are what we require to be fully alive, fully ourselves, fully human.
Sharing that need as a request to others is the biggest gift (Rosenberg talks of a “blessing”) that we can offer.
Because the deepest human need of all is to serve life (Rosenberg points to Victor Frankl’s work on our yearning for purpose). So the opportunity to meet someone else's need (their way of expressing life) is your opportunity to serve life. The paradox here: to ask (to meet your own need) is to give (them the opportunity to meet it, thus meeting their own need for significance and contribution to life).
Beyond “selfish vs selfless” (from coercion to consent)
These two assumptions set the foundation for the point I really want to explore today: the radical idea that I can care for my needs and yours at the same time… without privileging either. This a repeated theme in my writing (unpacking privilege and responsibility; exploring loving boundaries). It flows from the two assumptions above: it is possible to meet everyone’s needs (World); we want to meet the needs of others (We)… and introduces the third and final component: we want to meet our own (I). And: these three dimensions (I, We, World) need not be in conflict. To the contrary: they are interdependent, and the goal is to find a solution that simultaneously works at all levels.
Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that it all turns on the question of consent (Miki calls this “willingness”). It is this willingness that turns an obligation into a choice, that turns a sacrifice into a gift. A world where everyone belongs, by definition, is a world without coercion… is such a world possible? I believe the answer is yes.
This is the domain of practice I’m most excited about, because if we can do it at the micro level… there’s no inherent reason we can’t do it at the macro. Transformation is fractal; scale is fractal.
But oh man is it difficult: although I try to work on it every day, I fear it remains more aspirational than embodied at this point. Our society so often forces an artificial binary of me or you: I can prioritize my needs (selfish) or yours (selfless). Our entire economic system is predicated on this insanity called “rational choice theory”: if everyone acts selfishly, we’ll get good collective outcomes. That always sounded illogical to me even in theory: the results in practice are as bad as you would expect. So too with international relations: we all fight for our narrowly defined “national interest”… how’s that going so far?
But I want to keep the focus on the micro, for the moment. The world of interpersonal relations where we are offered the false choice of independence (I am an island!) or co-dependence (you are my island!) with so few healthy models for living in interdependence. And of course we’re socialized to cultivate skill in the art of subterfuge: dressing up our own needs under the guise of the collective, pretending to selflessness even as we pursue our individual needs (this is the best solution for everyone, trust me… it just happens to also be my preference). Or the reverse, pretending our sacrifice is actually in our own interests (no really, you take the last bite, I don’t want it).
It seems to me that our ability to navigate this dance, to hold my needs and yours together, requires three things (for the sake of practice, confining our domain to an interpersonal dyadic relationship, leaving aside the broader “we” and the world for the moment).
We have to be able to understand needs — and the expression of requests to meet those needs — as gifts. Otherwise the simple act of making a request will feel like the imposition of a burden; the act of hearing a request will feel like a demand.
It requires a radical commitment to consent. It requires a refusal to engage in any behavior that carries even a hint of coercion that impinges upon our free will, including in its more subtle forms: obligation, duty, debt, etc. This means recognizing that a “no” in response to a request “is as big a gift as a yes” (in Rosenberg’s words).
We have to be embodied: we have to be able to attune to the sensations and wisdom within our own bodies. Because while it can be difficult — particularly in a socially stressful situation — to know cognitively what we want, our bodies always know. A yes, no, or maybe is always registered in the body, if we can only cultivate the skill to listen.
Practicing in liminal space: call and answer
The critical moment is the time between the naming of the request… and the response. Let’s imagine I want to invite a friend to go on a walk. In this case, I’ve already done the work to identify my needs (to commune with nature, to connect with my friend, say), and taken the vulnerable step to make a request: would you go on a walk with me?
Now my friend has to pause, and do a moment of self-assessment: having heard what I want… what do they want? Ideally this is done expansively, not only in reaction to my request. That is, it’s not just “do they want to go on a walk with me” but “what do they want to do with this hour of time.” Which requires assessing their own underlying needs in that moment.
Then, from that grounded place (my friend now has a sense of their own needs), the response: yes, no, maybe. And because we are in relationship, this is an invitation to relate, to connect. These can all be complete sentences (“no” is a complete sentence), but of course the invitation is to care about the other person’s needs as well. So a loving “no” might also include the need my friend is feeling that leads to the no, and perhaps their own request, or maybe a counteroffer that might seek to meet both our needs. Here’s one way Miki illustrates it, in her new book on Convergent Facilitation:
But here’s the thing: caring about someone else’s needs—and even wanting to meet those needs—does not confer an obligation to do so. This is the subtle distinction around how I understand the concept of responsibility. Etymologically, it comes from Latin “to respond.” We have a responsibility (to everyone, but particularly to those with whom we are in intimate relationship) to respond. But that doesn’t mean the response from any specific individual has to be “yes”: it is not to incur a debt, to owe, to have an obligation. Rather, the responsibility is that we have to care about their need, and share a collective goal of trying to help them meet it.
It is never an individual responsibility to meet someone else’s needs (setting aside for the moment parental responsibilities for children). This is where the dyad can be a limiting construct: sometimes the best way to meet needs is to expand available capacity… and a good way to do that is by introducing other people to the equation. No, my friend doesn’t want to go on a walk; they have some work to finish. But perhaps my brother might?
This is the shift I discussed in the gift economy post: the goal is to transcend the “exchange” paradigm and its assumption of a closed loop of narrow reciprocity: I give something to you now so that you’ll give something to me later. The goal is to move to mutuality, to care, to freely giving (and freely receiving). It seeks to expand our circle of care beyond the dyad of two. Here’s the thing: the world I want to live in is a world where we collectively care about and do our best to attend to everyone’s needs. In order for that to be possible without coercion, meeting those needs must come from a place of willingness. Which means the responsibility to meet those needs cannot rest with any single individual: it must be a collective responsibility.
Returning to the case of a parent and child: in the world I want to live in, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that babies are raised with love and their core needs are met. So while it may be the parent who will assume that primary responsibility… it of course isn’t theirs alone. This is the beauty of the indigenous worldview of “all my relations”: your children are all our children. If the parent is unable, or chooses in a given moment not to (it isn’t in their capacity or willingness to respond to the baby’s need; maybe the mother needs to sleep)… then it is the community’s responsibility to meet that need: whoever has capacity (willingness) will step up.
This of course is how we already live in the context of family or close friendship, if we’re lucky enough to be in relationships of mutuality. To take an extreme case: if the parents of a family I’m close to died or became incapacitated, of course those of us who are in their intimate network would gather and decide together—based on capacity and willingness— who should care for the children, and how we can meet that need collectively. The possibility of not meeting the children’s needs is inconceivable.
Belonging = caring for the whole… in community
This, in a nutshell, is how I understand belonging. It’s an individual and collective commitment to caring for everyone’s needs: relationships of interdependence and noncoercion, encouraging the fullest expression of everyone’s gifts. And it only makes sense in the context of a community: some container that defines the “we,” within which we practice interdependence. While at the broadest level this container is the whole world, practically speaking we need more bounded domains of practice: more direct, less abstract.
This is Miki Kashtan’s definition of leadership, and one I share: a willingness to care for the whole. But, and this is vitally important: not the whole in conflict with the “I.” This is not “servant leadership” where you subjugate your needs to the collective. That isn’t the world I want. This is interdependent leadership, where we each take responsibility for all levels: I, We, and World… and commit to working together to find the best available solutions within our collective capacity.
Doing this in practice is incredibly rewarding: in those rare moments when I finally manage to thread that needle between selfish and selfless, to find a “self-full” way of being in interdependent relationship with another self-full person, to share my needs and stretch to meet theirs, to trust that we care about each other… it feels sooo good. It feels like belonging. And more: it feels natural. Even easy, once we’ve developed our capacities.
Mia Birdsong’s new book “How We Show Up” is a beautiful extended meditation on what this way of living in interdependence actually looks like in practice… and it is SO attractive. To have any chance of success… we have to do it in community. With others committed to trying different ways of being, living, and relating.
Unilateral willingness is necessary… and incredibly lonely
And: holding this commitment, in the face of a patriarchal system predicated on coercion, can be incredibly isolating. It requires a willingness to practice what Miki calls “unilateral willingness”:
The willingness to unilaterally assume interdependent responsibility for the whole. It’s unilateral willingness, because we are called commit to the path regardless of what others do.
I think what makes it so lonely for me personally is how few people are actually willing to even hold the inquiry, to seriously entertain the vision even for a moment. Even among those deeply committed to the same ends, it is vanishingly rare to find people willing to hold the whole, to look across the entirety of what is necessary without shrinking from the task. The reason this post cites Miki Kashtan so liberally is she is one of very few that I have found in the whole world who are seriously grappling with what it would entail to actually build this world… and taking steps to make it so, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. I deeply admire her courage, and feel inspired by it.
It is so rare for me to find someone who hears the vision that animates my life (to build a world where everyone belongs) and to hear that as an invitation to step into shared inquiry. The far more common response is either open scoffing, or immediate critique: what about, how will you, have you thought about…
I’ve thought a lot about why that is. I was listening to a breathtaking interview recently featuring nonbinary activist ALOK, and they shared why their vision of a world where people are free to be whomever they want to be (expansive gender expression) is so often violently resisted:
People hear [that vision] as a threat and not an invitation because of trauma, because they're afraid of possibility. Because they have been taught that the only way that they can get love and receive love and be is by being someone else's fantasy of who they should be.
That feels right: it’s a fear that if we allow ourselves to be seduced into this vision that we open ourselves to suffering, to non-belonging… for we’ve been socialized into that our whole lives.
And I think there’s another layer, that speaks more to grief, to mourning what we have lost (in addition to a fear of what we might lose). This line from Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick hit me like a ton of bricks when I first encountered it:
Whenever you hear the refrain “There is no alternative”, you are hearing the desperate cry of those who know that if they admit that there is, and always has been, an alternative of real relationship, then they will have to feel the depth of pain they have had inflicted on them.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for
I talk a lot about “hope” in this newsletter, because without it I don’t believe transformation is possible. As bell hooks said:
Hope is essential to any political struggle for radical change when the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair.
I like Rebecca Solnit’s definition:
Hope lies in the possibility of things being different.
It is that belief that is the wellspring for action, and that invitation I want to extend: what if things could be different? Before we answer why they can’t—let’s suspend our inner cynic for a moment—what might that world look like?
This is why I write. This is why I invest my energy in Building Belonging. I long for my friends to hear my invitation (even when inartfully expressed). We desperately need people to look past the fear, the trauma, the pain… to what is possible. Because to make this vision real—at the scale necessary—will take all of us. And while there’s no question it is incredibly hard… it need not be unpleasant. To the contrary: this work is the most fulfilling, exciting, and even fun work I’ve ever engaged in. I love this line from Shaun Chamberlain, interviewed on David Bollier’s great podcast:
What we can do is build something much more beautiful, much more convivial, much more supportive of wild nature… I believe we're not only creating the most wonderful present and the most fulfilling lives that we could be creating for ourselves, we are also creating the seeds for the sequels to our present civilization.
And: can we practice it right now? As Margaret Heffernan reminds us:
You can’t think your way to a solution; you have to act.
That’s the invitation to practice. To find your community of two, or three, or more. To share your longings, to hold theirs, to do your collective best to honor everyone without sacrificing—or privileging—anyone. I know it can be done: that is the source of my hope, and my commitment.
And as I press “publish” at the end of a week of Thanksgiving (not a white-washed version, but an honest reckoning with history), it’s worth heeding Robin Wall Kimmerer’s reminder that gratitude is the foundational practice of abundance.
I’d love to know if this resonates. I’d love to hear who else you look to in shaping your own intentions, informing your own visions, grounding in your own active hope.
If you’re interested in deepening in this inquiry together, and practicing interdependence… please consider subscribing. Our next monthly gathering for subscribers is Dec 7th @ 9am PT.
Beautiful. I appreciate the insight into loneliness as an aspect of welcoming interdependence. I hadn't thought of that before. I think maybe being in nature helps me with that? Woods, rivers, etc., welcome interdependence as a matter of existence, and it helps replenish my commitment.