Radical Belonging

Image Credit: Kassandra Estrada

In a recent talk about intimacy, the wonderful therapist and philosopher Tara Brach, shared the concept of radical belonging, which she discussed juxtaposed with “unreal othering,” which refers to the highly conditional connection we often have to others. Authors such as Bruce Alexander and Gabor Maté have described the extreme version of unreal othering as alienation or dislocation, in which there is no meaningful connection at all.  

If we want true intimacy in our lives—with other people or even the broader world around us—we need to be open to radical belonging with others, to nature, to the universe. My sense is that this kind of connection is fairly rare because it requires precursors such as vulnerability, acceptance, faith, and sacrifice and it fundamentally contradicts the values of American society which favor status, achievement, competition, and materialistic acquisition. It also takes time. But intimacy through radical belonging provides intense relational elements such as trust, warmth, emotional safety, growth, and discovery among other benefits.  

It is very likely the omnipresence of unreal othering, if not dislocation, that makes so much of the pain and suffering we cause each other even possible. We can only give ourselves permission to hurt others if we see them as other. This doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t hurt people with whom we are intimate; it’s that we don’t purposely hurt people with whom we are intimate. In fact, it is the vulnerability of true intimacy that can provide both sublime human connection and debilitating emotional pain. Critically, however, emotional pain in the context of intimacy is not the same as the suffering that comes from alienation. It is simply a foundational element of being an evolved human.  

I’ve come to believe that our tendency to forsake intimacy for unreal othering is actually a kind of pathology that may have at some point been based on a rational coping mechanism for protecting ourselves from people who see us as other, but it is ultimately a painfully maladaptive approach to relational elements of our lives and existence, because it makes genuine intimacy (and radical belonging) impossible. And, in the absence of intimacy, we fail to experience our full humanity.

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