I thought I knew a fair bit about Belonging – it’s a topic I love. I’ve spent the last few years studying it, measuring it, and teaching others about it. But our understanding of it, and appreciation for it, is never done.
Earlier this week, I got an unexpected but welcome reminder from a stranger – a beautiful man named Bill, about how Belonging feels and why it matters deeply.
This is that moment in time, revisited.
The Scene was Set
The week ahead was jam-packed, but I needed a walk.
My plan was simple – part exercise, part coffee acquisition, and a dash of early morning sunshine as I caught up on Sydney’s Monday – our team, our work, my family, the news.
I found my favourite coffee, and parked myself on a lovely Rittenhouse Square bench. Kids playing, workers breaking and squirrels foraging – exactly as planned.
Then, I heard a quiet “Good Morning”.
For a split second, as a man asked me how I was doing, and I asked him how he was doing, I had an ashamed ‘Oh No’ feeling.
I found myself ashamedly thinking what does he want from me? Even though he wasn’t asking for anything. I’m pretty empathetic, but I felt uneasy with my response and worse still reflecting on it now. Here was simply a man right next to me, saying hello.
Messy beard, disposable mask, warm eyes, a walking stick, and a small black suitcase on shaky wheels.
Despite his openness and warmth, for a few minutes I didn’t really engage with William (who I’d soon come to know as Bill). Even in a city that is not home, despite my other efforts to understand, and to belong.
Thankfully, unsurprisingly – Bill won me over quickly. I was drawn to him – his words, but more in the way he said them.
Bill often said hello by name as people walked their designer dog, or hurriedly with a coffee, or as they pushed their new bub in a pram that probably cost more than Bills entire suitcase of possessions.
Observing the Master
I started to watch Bill, his warmth in greeting people. In the space I was trying to fill with nothing that couldn’t wait, I found someone creating Belonging.
As we started to chat, Bill would momentarily and politely pause our conversation to go about his work – asking people for some spare change to buy a coffee. He’d often say hello and recall specifics about the individual. “Hello Julie, how’s Tony? He had a bad leg last time we spoke”. He was building a community in this park – greetings, smiles, remembering people with compassion.
As I sipped my coffee, I felt guilty about how easy it was for me to get. A mask, a small queue, a debit card – thankfully it was easier yet to get Bill one.
With what I’ve learnt about Belonging, and social psychology, what else could I do?
Firstly, the easiest one, I could sit with Bill and chat. That conversation lifted us both.
Secondly, by sitting together we collectively shifted the different assertions people would cast on either of us compared to if we were sitting alone. Both of us were immediately more approachable, more real – we created a social proof.
Social proof simply means people will do things that they see other people doing – like ‘it’s safe to do this, they’re doing it’. For others to join us, or to join each other – to connect.
And, it can rub off. We saw one guy do a hot lap and come back to give Bill a couple of dollars. Social proof – if that guy can give Bill a buck, I can too.
And, more money came…
It was not an experiment though.
I wanted to know more about Bill – the details of his world – now, and before, and going forward. Of his upbringing in Northern Philly. Of his work in a steel factory before age and ill health (a stroke that paralysed his left arm). Of changing industry, and a pesky insurance claim that is stuck in the system. Of his 5 years homelessness at 72 years old. Of his Grandmother, who helped raise him, and the fondness in his voice for her. Of seeing himself as lucky that his stroke was minor, as a stroke saw his Grandmother gone.
When we first started talking, it was all too easy to see the differences.
Bill older, me younger. Bill shorter, me taller. Bill American, me Australian. Bill black, me white.
But, we both love to listen and love to talk.
Despite our differences, I started hearing, and feeling the similarities. Like Bill, I grew up with my grandparents. As I heard Bill fondly describe his grandmother and her influence – I thought of my own Nan and Pa – the latter who had a stroke then insidious 4 years with dementia. Just like Bill – my grandparents form a big part of my identity – good, bad, who I am and who I hope to be.
When you actually get to know someone, their similarities find you.
Bill had the deepest kindness and a belief we can create positive emotion in others. And that we should use that power for good! He would wave to kids in prams (and SO often they would smile and wave back!), say hello to the walkers and always offer an ear and advice to his community. People actually came looking for him to say hello.
Perhaps one too many Umbrella Academy episodes lately, but, Bill’s superpower is creating connection and Belonging. To me, that’s very cool, and better yet – we all have it, and can deploy it at any time. In fact, we can deploy it all the time – if we choose to accept the mission.
Every day, Bill basically has to sell himself – his stories, his warmth, his hardships, his humanity – to total strangers. Without ego and with absolute vulnerability, to meet the most basic of human needs – to Belong.
Right now, Bill’s shelter is shut – as he put it ‘I guess the virus is tough for so many people, and we won’t die out here in the warmer months’. Here was a guy with zero, yet still with deep empathy for his community.
Some people will read this, and make a judgement on me as a virtue signaler, and I couldn’t care less if you think that about me.
But, I do care about what I think, and what I do, and what you think, and what you do, when you meet people, like Bill.
In the park, on the street, at work. When you meet any other human, in any setting.
I deeply care about the choice we have to deploy our superpower of Belonging (sure, despite the initial temptation at times to deploy Invisibility). No stopping trains needed – just a smile, a wave, a conversation.
In my short time with Bill, I feel changed. My outlook reset – for the minute, for the hour, for the week and hopefully for a lot longer.
What matters most
Belonging is about appreciating another human being.
It’s not about unseeing their difference, or being blind to something about them, or to their existence. It is about connecting. And it’s ok to recognise, and be comfortable with the notion that your assumptions WILL be wrong.
We spend so much time swimming against complexity, to find simplicity.
It’s about being open. To be interested, generous and kind. We can all do that.
(Genuine) smiles and pleasantries can change the entire day of someone else.
Don’t be too busy or important. Be present and make someone’s day.
We can all build Community and Connectivity – it’s our superpower.
Regardless of role or status, we can create community and connectivity. We can be called Bill, or Number 10. It doesn’t matter. Bill changed the lives of people in that park, by connecting, by caring.
A Final Thought
I learnt too many things from Bill for just one article, but ultimately, for us that care so deeply about people and work – there are two lessons on Belonging that hold now, and always.
Lesson 1 – if you really get to know someone – their name, their story, their past, their future, their bumps and bruises – it’s pretty hard to not like them. And you’ll want to navigate and understand difference, and you’ll want to share and celebrate similarity and everything in between. And that’s big.
Lesson 2 – to enable that, the onus is not on Bill, it is on YOU. At work, in life, your most important role is to deploy your superpower, of creating connection and Belonging. Create it for others, and you’ll create it for yourself too.
The best news of all comes last.
It is in my reach, your reach, our reach. Belonging has the ability to heal, to help, to change people’s day, week, month and life, to allow a person’s fullest contribution – there is only upside if you’re ready to use it.