We all want to belong somewhere
I remember being in 5th grade and going to gym class, dreading it. I was a skinny kid, tall like a reed, and born with what my Uncle used to joke a "sunken treasure chest." I used to change for gym and be so embarrassed because my chest looked sunken in rather than a chest like Tarzan with big pecs. The medical terminology for the condition is Pectus excavatum and it's more common than people might think—1 in 1,000 births.
But for me, I was born this way and never had any physical health issues related to my chest sinking inward instead of out. No surgery or corrective means were necessary for the condition. It's just the way I was made.
So changing in gym class was really difficult for me because I didn't want anyone to make fun of me. And boys will be boys. Add on top of my sunken condition that my mom had recently divorced and was poor—that created another challenge for me. I remember changing into my gym clothes and then putting on my sneakers. My gold sneakers. Because of how tight money was for my mom, she, my brother and I had moved in with her parents and instead of me getting brand new sneakers like all my classmates had, well, I had used sneakers bought at a flea market that were gold.
As you can imagine, all the kids made fun of me. I'm 46 now and still remember kids picking on me for my shoes. Add on top of that my Pectus excavatum chest, and let's just say that I was picked on a lot.
I had a family life that was chaotic due to a really messy divorce and my father's abuse, and all I wanted was to fit in and belong. To feel loved and to not be made fun of. I wanted to have friends like everyone else and to learn in school. No wonder I retreated to books and writing up my own stories. I found it hard to fit in because my family and I moved around a lot in the course of my elementary school years. From kindergarten to 8th grade, I attended 4 different schools.
That change, my physical makeup and being on the poorer side made growing up hard. I eventually did find some friends to hang out with, but overall I was the nerdy kid in school and not very popular.
Recently, I picked up Brené Brown's new book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, and it resonated with me like I had met a lost soulmate. Reading her story of growing up, reminded me of my own rough times. And her book also made me come to terms with the past and my present. Right now (it seems all over the world) groups are breaking off into their own little echo chamber. One group hates the other, no one is talking, we're all shouting, and the situation is getting worse. Loneliness, fear, anger and a breakdown in the fabric of society is occurring across all levels.
No matter if it's the schism in America's political system and how it played out in the 2016 election, the racial divide that's tearing cities apart or the horrible tragedy of Las Vegas where so many people lost their lives—there's a lot of anger and fear everywhere I look.
I truly never thought my future would be this way. When a kid, I had child-like problems: I didn't want people to make fun of me for how I looked and what I did or did not have. Now I'm older and I see my own children going through their own struggles with bullies and their struggles to fit in and my wife and I are there to support them to be the foundational bedrock they can know is stable.
But I remember the hurt I felt as a kid, not being able to fit in, and how much that affected me. Like Brené Brown, I just wanted to belong and fit in with a group. The good news is that the few friends that I did have were great and we used to have a lot of fun together.
In looking back, I now know that not compromise on my personal beliefs and that I need to be strong and stand up for what I believe. I have been teased, picked on and mocked. In high school, I once had a fellow classmate grab my nipple through my shirt and twist it, trying to make me cry. When I didn't respond, he gave up trying to get a rise out of me, but he did hurt me—I just hid it from him. For a long time, I tried to belong, fit in, but I always felt that I was trying to fit into the wrong places, so I would just go my way. I sometimes felt like a lost soul and I didn't know where I could find people like me.
I wanted to talk about books, movies and the arts while my classmates in high school bragged about what girl they had been with over the weekend or what fights they had gotten into. Somehow I survived high school and started writing more stories in which a common theme would shine through: I wrote about women who struggled to find their way in life. The hero's journey, for me, was in exploring it from the female perspective. Maybe that's a mix of what I saw in my own upbringing in how my mother struggled so hard to get by and earn enough money to take care of my brother and I (while my father had vanished out of our lives and contributed no money to help). And maybe it's also because I've always been drawn to women because I've found that they are willing to express their feelings, to listen, want to have discussions and often became my best friends in college and graduate school.
I took all of what I knew and applied it to my own life, choosing to explore the stories of women because it's what felt most natural to me. But instead of being ashamed of what I wanted to write about, I've embraced it. Just like J.K. Rowling writes about boys, so I write about girls. Over the last six years of my journey as a writer, I realized that it's time for me to stand up, brave that wilderness that Brené Brown speaks of, and carve out my own space.
Those who can identify with me and what I write will join me. Those who don't will move on. The core message of who I am is to simply reveal the hurt and pain that I've lived through, own up to it, show that the past doesn't control who I am today and share hope. Hope that others who have come rough backgrounds can be okay as well.
Brené Brown shares a great story about Maya Angelou and also this quote:
"You are only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great."
I gave up long ago trying to belong somewhere to fit in. I don't know when I finally wised up, but I now belong to myself. And that's all that matters.
I have been made fun of for being too skinny, my best, being a bookworm, nerdy, weak—all sorts of things. But I now know that as Brené Brown puts it: I'm "braving the wilderness."
And I bet that you have a story to tell too. Tell me, do you feel like you belong?
Ron Vitale is a fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction author. He's written the Cinderella's Secret Witch Diaries series, the Witch's Coven series, book one in the Jovian Gate Chronicles, and now the first book, Ahab's Daughter, in the Werewhale Saga.