I began my career in higher education as a professor of anthropology, and when I moved into student affairs I was immediately struck by the collaboration and teamwork that permeates our enterprise. While academic affairs for me was characterized by themes of autonomy and independence, I find that our bread and butter is building consensus, bridging differences, and finding common ground. We are team players and we advocate for the good of the whole. I often joke that we are the golden retrievers of higher education, always eager to join in. We find great satisfaction in belonging to the tribe.
In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown addresses the issue of “belonging” and shares a provocative quote from Maya Angelou: "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."
What does it mean to belong “no place?” Isn’t belonging an essential human need, and the source of comfort and safety? According to Brown, the need to belong can prevent us from standing in our own truth. It can mean that our worth becomes contingent on others’ estimations of us, or that we flow along with the tide even if we don’t think it is the best direction, because not belonging is too painful. Instead, Angelou and Brown maintain that belonging to ourselves is the most profound and important kind of belonging.
This means we must risk the comforts of belonging at times in order to stand for who we are and what we believe. It may mean standing up to represent an unpopular opinion, calling the ethics or integrity of the group into question, or doing the right thing instead of the easy thing.
This kind of “true belonging” requires courage and vulnerability, and can come with uncertainty, self-doubt and fear. But we truly begin to belong to ourselves when we dare to brave the “wilderness” of standing alone and apart.
I encountered the wilderness at one point in my professional career when I reported some serious misconduct that had been a troubling, oppressive, and frightening pattern for several years. As someone who has helped students self-advocate for nearly thirty years, and one who is undeniably assertive and confident, I was amazed at how difficult and scary it was to raise my hand.
The wilderness was scary and terrain I’d never navigated. I noticed all the ways my self-talk tried to minimize my concerns in order to keep “belonging” to the group. What if no one believed me? What if there was retaliation? “Maybe it’s not that bad. I’m tough, I should be able to handle this on my own.” I also had valued colleagues who cautioned me about my decision to come forward. They worried about the consequences I could face. For several days, I was frozen with fear about coming forward.
Ultimately, I did speak my piece, and the interminable waiting to see what the outcome would be was exhausting and stressful. In the end, there was no satisfying conclusion. My complaint was heard, but nothing changed. It was business as usual. While I felt some combination of moral outrage and defeat, I gradually came to realize that it was a transformative experience.
I revisited the conclusion of Braving the Wilderness, where Brown writes ““There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone somewhere will say, Don’t do it, you don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.” This is where you reach deep in your wild heart and say, “I am the wilderness.”
From a personal perspective, I learned that standing in the wilderness creates a strong spine, and that the vulnerability of that space is rich with lessons. I developed keen insights into what it means for our students to occupy this same place, and how scary that can be — especially when you don’t have the years of life experience that build our confidence and self-assurance. I will never take for granted the utter aloneness a student experiences when they come forward to report an injustice.
In an equally profound way, I connected with a new, visceral empathy for what it must be like to stand in the wilderness for those with far less privilege than I have — my colleagues of color, for instance, who have felt the ache of exclusion and the exhaustion of raising their hands and waiting for justice that is either slow-coming or elusive.
The loneliest places can also be the ones where we discover our resilience, tenacity, and the core of who we are, and we can’t give up on that. The wilderness is our ultimate homecoming.