The Not-So-Subtle Power of Belonging

As I imagine it is for most thirteen year-olds, my transition from the small elementary school at the end of my block to the chaotic zoo that was my first junior high school was a difficult one.

At the end of June I was still in my sheltered, twenty-kid per class building that had been my home-away-from-home since I was five years old and by early September I was thrust into hallways of thousands of kids, locker combinations I couldn’t remember, horror stories about what occurred in the rest rooms and, I shit you not, actual fraternities of upperclassmen who’s seemingly only job was to torture children of the incoming class.

To make things even more complicated, just as I was getting my bearings as 8th grade began, my family moved to a town deeper into Nassau County and I had to start the process all over again.

I’d always been an agreeable kid. Teachers loved me. I was never the bully nor the bullied. I was generally quiet. I was good at fitting in.

This all changed about 6 weeks into my tenure at my new school. That is when try-outs for the basketball team were being held.

I always loved playing sports as a kid but I had never done so in a really organized way. I’d play stickball on the street in front of my house with the other kids who lived on my block. Or touch football in the asphalt parking lot next to my house.

I can remember Summer evenings cranking a boombox in my backyard and shooting hoops on a rim attached to a piece of plywood that my Dad affixed to a tree until the automatic lights on the side of the house came on. Every made basket ricocheting off the exposed roots at the bottom of the big oak.

I did play two seasons of Little League baseball which did not go very well. Because I was a really big kid (I often joke that in my Little League team photo I look more like a coach) I was chosen early in the team selection process which led to a lot of disappointment when my coaches realized that I could barely hit, never mind hit for power, and didn’t even know how to use a glove (the street games I had been playing had an unspoken rule that we used as minimal equipment as possible so every available kid, regardless of how much money their families had, could play).

My early growth spurt made me remarkably uncoordinated. My giant feet didn’t want to cooperate with the rest of my legs. My eyes and my hands couldn’t communicate.

But by the time I got to 8th grade those problems were starting to resolve. And either by some beautiful fate or the fact that I was still the biggest kid in my class, I was able to survive tryouts and gain a spot on the basketball team.

What followed over the next six weeks prior to our first game was a real-time assessment of my strengths and considerable weaknesses as a basketball player.

Strengths: rebounding, defense, willingness to hustle for any loose ball, shot blocking.

Weaknesses: dribbling, shooting, free throws (I remember the first time I took my first free throw in practice and turned it into a bricked jump shot), endurance.

But something else really magical and life changing happened in those first few weeks.

I went from being a kid who fit in to feeling a sense of belonging.

When it was time to choose jerseys, the other kids, in a nod to my willingness to work hard, let me choose first. By the time of the first game I was a starter. By the time I got to 10th grade I was moved up to the varsity team early to get experience. By the time I was a senior my team had named me team captain.

There is something incredibly powerful about belonging and it’s the number one thing I recommend to anyone looking to join a gym or any other community. It’s not easy but it’s remarkably important.

You must be willing to go out on adventures and find where you belong. Where you’ll feel so connected to a greater purpose you’ll be willing to dive for loose balls, take elbows to the face and get into fights simply to defend your teammates.

Research shows that people are more willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others than they ever would for themselves.

The ironic benefit of this is that it will also put you on the fast track to reaching your own personal goals and provide a true sense of fulfillment.

Just fitting in is not good enough. Having lukewarm feelings of “well, this is okay” isn’t really okay. And when you do find a place of true belonging you will immediately sense the difference.

You’ll realize that your longings are universal longings. That you are not lonely or isolated from anyone.

That you belong.