What Does it Mean to Belong?

Really good time last night at St John’s College in Durham, where I was taking part in the ‘Senior Tutors’ Forum’ – a space for all members of the St John’s community, from academics to freshers to post grads and ordinands to come together in a relaxed setting and chew over some issues.

Last night was all about the nature of belonging, which produced a fascinating discussion into the nature of what it meant to belong. Two things that struck me as the evening progressed: firstly that we are all the product of a wide range of belongings, and secondly, given the increasingly fractured sense of belonging, our belongings – the things that we consume – have become more important.

EM Forster once wrote that ‘no one has possessions any more, only luggage‘ and this strikes me as a prescient quote. Our lives are less described by a deepening connection to one place as a journey through many places, and so our ‘luggage’ becomes increasingly important to us. A student’s room is a good example of this: what are the things that we take with us to furnish our rooms with? What are the most important items to help us transition from one space of belonging to another?

One of the ways that people find belonging in a new place is through the ritual and routine that they can immerse themselves in. In discussion last night we looked at how educational institutions are still very much built on an Industrial Revolution mode of organisation. Many schools and universities are not dissimilar to factories – running to strict timetables governed by bells, with production lines of student being processed and graded each year. As well as emerging Capitalism, the church has to take some of the blame for this clockwork attitude to time, where the maximum amount is extracted out of each day. The monasteries were very keen to see ‘the hours’ divided up accurately, and many of the early innovations in time-keeping came out of this world.

Belonging is a series of complex interactions, and one of the things I wanted to leave students in Durham with was advice to not worry too greatly about the permanence of ‘belonging’ at the start of their studies – to not become too enmeshed in ritual and routine too quickly, and not seek to ‘belong’ in more permanent ways until they had got the lie of the land.


One response to “What Does it Mean to Belong?”

  1. thanks for coming up Kester. it was a great evening. productive, stimulating – well worthwhile. hopefully see you monday when you’re back again?