Social Centipede

Ever heard of the dilemma of the centipede? The story goes that someone asks a centipede how in the world it manages to coordinate moving all of those legs smoothly. The centipede thinks about it, trying to form a description, but as soon as it begins to think about what its legs are doing it becomes hopelessly fouled up.

A couple of months ago, someone challenged me to write a poem about “the joy of belonging.” I wrestled with it several times, never coming up with a hook that pleased me. The challenge, in fact, probably had a very opposite effect to that intended: because I was unable to come up with a poem about it, my feelings of loneliness and not belonging became sharper. I had to admit that belonging wasn’t an experience I knew well enough to write about.

I know others feel this way; I even know I belong more than I think I do. But it bugged me that I couldn’t evoke one scene, one instance of joyful belonging with enough reality to spark a poem.

The closest I got–close enough for preliminary scribbles, which I might try to expand at some point–is remembering how singing with a group feels. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the other singers, producing a sound that’s blending with others to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts, brought me some of my most wonderful emotional and spiritual experiences.

Part of the magic, of course, is the liberation from self-consciousness. For me, singing like that is a rare instance of not analyzing myself. When I’m focused on oxygen, or lack thereof, and hearing the other singers, and reading the music, and watching the conductor, there is finally enough going on to make my brain shut the fuck up.

I belong, then, but the reason I belong is that I’m no longer thinking about whether or not I belong. As soon as I start thinking again, it’s back to the dilemma of the centipede.

If lack of self-absorption is a key to belonging, I know there are other times I belong. I belong when I’m doing service, focused on something that needs to be done to help others. I belong when I’m fully present with someone I love, having a moment free of my fears and other demons. And, if this is true, I know I can belong more often if I work at it.

But how do I describe the joy of belonging, when it vanishes as soon as I even ask if it is there?

In the years since coming close to death and entering recovery, I’ve become more creative and passionate than in any previous era of my life. I’m more capable of loving both myself and others, even as I become more aware of the uncomfortable truths about myself that try to interfere. I’m more alive, more human–and I’ve never felt so lonely.

Every time I think I can’t feel any lonelier, I do. With or without good reason, loneliness walks with me, sleeps with me, sits beside me at this desk. I don’t know if it’s part of maturing, or part of grieving. I don’t know if everyone is feeling this lonely on the inside (surely, they can’t be…can they?)

What would it be to feel the opposite of loneliness, and be aware of feeling it? To exist in my own consciousness enough to name the feeling, yet out of myself enough not to be sucked back into separateness?

I almost wrote that I’ve never experienced such a state, but it isn’t true. I have, during very brief moments, under circumstances I fear I won’t ever encounter again. But whether I ever do or not, I can work toward the somewhat more attainable kind of belonging that comes from creating things with other people.

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