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    a table with plates of delicious breakfast food

    The Table Where I Belonged

    Has our search for happiness and freedom taken us away from the very key we’re missing?

    By Pete Kauffman

    February 16, 2024
    • Evita Fernandez

      beautifully said- thank you

    On a typical morning in my childhood, I wake and trudge down to the barn to help Dad with the farm chores: chickens, two horses, a milk cow, a dog, a pig or two. I am often conveniently fifteen minutes late. When we arrive back at the house, Dad, who is a pastor and instructed by the Bible to be grave and temperate, is making up songs about jumping ditches and losing his britches. My sisters are glaring at him because they dislike mornings and say it hurts to laugh before 10 a.m., but his zany humor wins the contest and they smile, if reluctantly.

    The older boys have packed their lunch for the day of work. I sit at the table, between my next older brother and my next younger sister. There is cereal, buttered toast, and eggs most mornings, maybe two pieces of bacon or sausage for everyone. Everybody communicates in monosyllabic grunts. My older brother yawns, stretching to bump me on the head with his forearm. He does this every morning on purpose. After breakfast, there are family devotions (the boys eyeing the clock), and then we part ways for the day’s work.

    a table with plates of delicious breakfast food

    Photograph by Michelangelo Oprandi / Alamy Stock Photo

    We ate two meals a day together: breakfast and supper. I always had the same spot on the bench. We laughed often, teased about each other’s eating habits, and had long-standing family jokes that weren’t funny. We did not miss supper without a legitimate excuse. Looking back, I sense a security at that table that I never questioned. I belonged there, and when I was there, I was in the right spot. I might dream of living in a wilderness cabin or working as a cowboy or a traveling writer in the impossibly distant future, but at the time, I belonged at that table each morning and each evening.

    That era of my life is over. I grew older, married, and now have my own household. But the memory of that belonging has gone with me, and now I wish to be gathered into a people so I might belong, with that same certainty, to a particular place in the world. Growing up, I liked to stay aloof from the people I spent my life with, because it allowed me to be a little proud and retain the image of individual. But all the while I was part of them whether I liked it or not; they were woven into my history and memory. Today, I see how my family and church, with their foibles and strengths, have shaped me and I am grateful to them. I am now learning what it means to belong, and submitting myself to the work of living it out has led me to cherish both the idea and the reality of it.

    America has been telling itself, both overtly and covertly, that if we could be free from the moral inhibitions of past generations, the mind-numbing work of manual labor, family responsibility, and economic limitations, we could be happy. We should have a right to pursue personal happiness, per the constitution, at the expense of cultural, familial, or marital conventions.

    I do not think we know what it takes to make us happy, and our wanderings in search of individual happiness have led us to all points of absurdity. We have been running from limits, believing that all limits are oppressive and no limits at all is freedom. We want self-expression and autonomy, to discover ourselves, to become our own. “My body, my choice” calcifies around the idea that the individual belongs to no one, that she has exclusive ownership of her body. We have been told that we have the “right” to abort babies, the “right” to have babies despite biological limitations, the “right” to kill others in self-defense, the “right” to kill yourself in medically-assisted suicide, the “right” to medical treatments, the “right” to be comfortable, the “right” to indulge in alternative lifestyles, the “right” to eat however we like. Our private life becomes unmoored from any cultural foundation, and we must invent our lives and then defend our invention, a process ultimately doomed. When you get to a place of complete personal rights, you are, by definition, there alone.

    There are two definitions of belong that complement each other: 1) When something belongs to another, they are owned by the thing they belong to. That knife belongs to Jack. 2) When something belongs somewhere, they are in the right spot. That cup belongs in the cupboard.

    We can be owned by the wrong things; we can be in the wrong spot. Part of learning to belong is learning to be beholden in the right ways. Belonging can extend forward and backward in time to include loyalties to our grandparents as well as our children, even unborn children. When we belong to our ancestors, we view them with humility, respect, and sympathy, respecting their life and the heritage they have handed down to us, be it honorable or otherwise. When we belong to our children, we live so that our children will not be disgraced. A man cannot commit adultery or fornication while knowing and respecting his people. A woman cannot abort a child and respect future generations. A man cannot abuse his body by overeating, alcoholism, substance abuse, overwork, or any other vice unless he first removes the concern for the people to whom he belongs.

    Scripture clearly declares that we belong to our Creator, who redeemed us and wants us to spend eternity with him. We also belong to a visible body of Christ. We belong to our spouses and families; we are owned by them and when we are with them, we are in the right place. There are other things we belong to, even if only for a season. I belong to my students for the school year. We might belong to a piece of land, allowing it to shape us and our rhythms of life. Belonging is not so much a state of being as it is an action.

    The short story “It Wasn’t Me” by Wendell Berry has shaped much of my thought about belonging and the formation of community. Before his death, Old Jack Beechum leaves the farm to his daughter, who has moved to Louisville, but also ensures that Elton Penn, his worthy young tenant, is given half the sale price. Old Jack is thinking this will allow Penn to have his farm while still leaving an inheritance for his daughter.

    Wheeler Catlett, Old Jack’s friend, nephew by marriage, and lawyer by hire, assumes that Old Jack’s daughter will oblige her father’s dying wish. Instead she insists on her “right” to receive a fair market value for the farm.

    Wheeler Catlett goes with Elton Penn to the courthouse sale. In the heat of the bidding war, Catlett encourages Penn to go on until they finally win the bid at $300 an acre, more than the young man can afford. Elton is glad to have the farm but both angry and anxious that he must receive it in debt not only to the bank, but also in some degree to Catlett. Penn wants to be free of institutions, free of help. He wants to prove that he is capable of handling his own life and making his way in the world independently. He is afraid to be beholden to someone, for fear that he will not be able to repay and live free of obligations. “I want to make it my own.” says Elton Penn, the young and independent farmer. “I don’t want a soul to thank.”

    When you get to a place of complete personal rights, you are, by definition, there alone.

    “Wheeler thinks, ‘Too late.’ But does not say it. That he knows the futility of that particular program does not prevent him from liking it. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘Putting aside … what it means just to be a living human, I don’t think your old friend has left you in a shape to live thankless.’”

    Penn sees it now. He might be able to own his farm free and clear, but he will always be in debt to Old Jack’s goodwill. Though he did not ask for help, Jack’s charity puts him into an obligation he did not see coming. Elton must abandon his own ideas of self-sufficiency and individualism. To reject the gift would be to reject his elders and mentors, men who had shown him great kindness. But by accepting the gift, Penn has the privilege of living a life on his farm that he loves and becoming a part of the beloved membership of Port William.

    The story illustrates a young man’s baptism into a “line of succession,” as Berry puts it, by being given a gift. And here is where community begins, I think. It is not a membership you can purchase for yourself. It is membership that must be given, as a gift, by the community. Belonging begins when this gift is received. Once received, the individual has the security of the community as well as the demands of living as a member of it. I have studied the history of Kentucky, where I am from, enough to know that any community always has its honorable characters, legends, eccentrics, racists, and philanthropists. Historically, these people were bound together by geography and a kind of economic need, and this formed the community.

    Today, we have no such impersonal force as local economy or limited travel to force us together. We can choose to be independent because we have plenty of money and can travel for what we need, and the modern emphasis on community, while honorable, is impotent for its apparent impertinence. We need communities spiritually – most of us recognize this – but we do not need them any other way. We have insurance to get us out of our financial scrapes, cars to take us to people we like better, and enough money to “free” ourselves economically from our neighbors. Our communities, thus, do not have the stories and traditions that form from mutual needs. They only have the imposed gatherings, top-down attempts, and our talk about “forming community.” We get together for picnics and talk about the weather.

    There are situations in any kind of thankful life that take the shape of a gift that must be accepted, with its corresponding demands. We are offered the gift, but even as we do so we release our self-image of the self-made man, the individualist, who blazes his own way in the world and has gotten here by asserting his rights. When you have received a gift, you have someone to thank, and the process of thankfulness implies a debt. This debt cannot be paid with money; the only acceptable currency is a piece of yourself. You give a part of yourself to your neighbor and now you belong to him, and he to you. You have a stake in his life.

    The Scottish naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We have come to view ourselves as independent pieces that may act without disrupting the larger scene, but I think the truth that we are an ecosystem. Your eating habits affect your fatherhood and your work habits make a difference for your neighbor. We are bound to each other in ways we do not understand, and to move about willy-nilly is to live in denial of the interconnectedness of humans. Belonging is predicated on the view that to pull up roots is not only to wither a little yourself, but also leave a hole in the forest.

    Belonging can also be a choice. Like Ruth, who says to Naomi, thy people shall my people be, we may commit ourselves to people in spite of whatever may occur. That we may suffer hardship or have a disagreement does not allow us to run elsewhere because we have decided that we belong here.

    I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in Kentucky, in a community I learned to love. As a town, it is unremarkable, but it will always be my place. I can see a hundred shades of light on those steeply wooded hills, can hear the twang of a good southern drawl at the auto parts store. I can smell the river and the wet mud on the rocks. In so many ways, these are my people, this is my place. After a childhood in one community, one builds up a history and a memory of a place that is not easily forgotten, which adds a level of color and stability and continuity to one’s life that is disrupted upon relocation.

    Strife, or even dishonorable circumstances in the community has led many to look for a better people or a better place, and they have relocated only to find themselves merely displaced. Running from community like this follows the old American pattern of boom and bust. It results in a spiritual displacement, of people who have not lived inside their geographic and ancestral community well enough or long enough to become a true member of it. They have not been there through enough seasons to truly own it.

    Once we are displaced from the land where we built up that social momentum, we have left something, if not vital, then of value. We have left the place where we have come into our adulthood with those people around us. We have left the developed consciousness of memory that will take us far into the past.

    The feeling of belonging gives us a momentum to carry into the world; our sense of belonging prepares us to be useful far beyond the borders of our own small town. But the trouble is that after the first move, it makes moving again so much easier, because it forces one to choose home again.

    Learning to belong is not something that will happen soon, or easily. Community is often not pretty – not in the Instagram-style of espresso hospitality that is set out by many of its modern advocates. Communities have their drunkards and shiftless people; at times it feels like a complete bust. But among its people will be the sense of having a stake in each other’s life, that they owe some vital piece of themselves to each other, and they cannot leave. To learn to belong might take your entire life, and that fault may lie with you, or it may lie with them, perhaps because they are not giving the gift of community or you refuse to accept it. But working to belong will begin to shape us for community even before we receive it as a gift.

    Contributed By PeterKauffman Pete Kauffman

    Pete Kauffman is a husband, father, and writer living in Alaska.

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