How to Belong When You Don’t Belong Anywhere

By Rachel Britton

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Someone once described me as “a woman without a home.” I wasn’t homeless and living on the street. Instead, having left my home country to move to the States, I didn’t feel like I truly belonged in my new community nor the community I had left behind. 

Even if you haven’t relocated or transitioned from one country to another, you can still have this experience. A cross-country move to New York City can make you feel like you’ve landed in a foreign country. 

A single move is not the only phenomenon to make us feel like we don’t fit in. You could be what’s known as a Third Culture Kid, even when you’re an adult. The term refers to being born and raised in one culture, say America, yet your parents are from another culture in which you have never lived, but whose norms and values have been instilled in you from birth. 

Third Culture refers to a mixed identity — one culture mixed with a second culture to make the third. A mixed identity can make life interesting, but also confusing. You can always feel like you’re an outsider wherever you are.

Whether you’re Third Culture or you just transitioned to a new location, how do we live with this feeling that we don’t truly belong anywhere? How do we get a sense of having a rightful place? 

UNDERSTANDING YOU ARE NOT ALONE

In New York City we can find comfort knowing that many other people share in our experience. NYC is full of people who have not lived or been brought up in a single place. You only have to listen to the accents of the people you’re passing on the street, work with, or hear when you climb in a cab. Most people around here are from somewhere else.

We also need to know that the lack of a traditional community is not a modern phenomenon. It’s as old as the Torah. And from there we can draw wisdom, particularly from a person whose life was not too dissimilar from our own.

Moses, the revered, ancient figure of Judaism and Christianity, was, in my view, a Third Culture Kid. Raised as an Egyptian, he had a Hebrew heritage, no doubt impressed on him from birth. At one low point in his life, both sets of people rejected him. He fled to live in another country where he married and had children. I’m not sure what that makes his children — Fourth Culture? Or maybe just messed up! Moses said about himself, “I have become a foreigner living in a foreign land.” How’s that for a lack of identity? He belonged nowhere.

So, what wisdom can we draw from this man? 

Belonging is not tied to a physical location but is linked to being spiritually rooted. 

When we get our sense of belonging from our spiritual identity and not the culture around us or instilled in us, it helps us navigate the confusing nature of where we belong and the temporary nature of our physical home. It gives us a rootedness in the long-term, whatever the short-term nature of where we live in the world. 

We can have a sense of belonging even in the city where we feel like we don’t belong.

Belonging is tied to a bigger purpose and destiny.

Moses may have felt like a foreigner, but an encounter with God gave him a new identity and purpose. And then Moses found hope in living out the goals God had for him. That objective was to lead the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to the security of their own home country. Ironically, Moses never got to set foot in that country. Instead, he set his heart on the honor he received spiritually.

It might sound like a cop-out or denial to live for what’s outside this physical life, giving us a reason not to make an effort to assimilate where we live. But an encounter with God, as weird as that might sound, can change the way we think about where we belong. I know that from personal experience. 

When we know who we are spiritually and are settled in that identity, we can navigate all kinds of “foreign” terrain without losing our way.

Fast forward a few thousand years. The same God Moses had an encounter with invites us to belong to him. Faith in God and Jesus gives us a home country and declares we’re no longer strangers.