Some will head home joyfully this Christmas. Others? Not so much. As the latter will tell you, if home is where you’re known, that’s not enough. We want not just to be known, but known and loved.
You can glimpse such a craving in ‘Late Fragment’, by American writer Raymond Carver:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Carver names a deep human need: “to call myself beloved.” But it’s less clear whether we openly acknowledge such a desire to underwrite all human endeavour.
After all, we are estranged from this kind of language – not least because its naked longing leaves us exposed and vulnerable. But at the very least, we might say that being beloved is to know, deep in our bones, that we matter. To be beloved means that we are seen and recognised for who we are, regarded as precious and valuable, affirmed and celebrated in our uniqueness, and that we are entirely at home where we belong.
If this desire is shared by all then while we are all individuals, ultimately we couldn’t be less individualistic. The desire to be beloved presumes the existence of others whose recognition is fundamental to our ability “to feel myself / beloved on the earth”—or not.
As philosopher Charles Taylor has explored, our intimate relationships are one way we seek recognition from others – we need friends, family and, particularly, lovers, to form our identities, affirm them and reflect our individual selves back at us.
We also seek recognition on the social plane, through culture and legislation. There the desire to be the beloved masquerades behind more familiar labels: respect, affirmation, belonging, equality. A desire to belong, or to claim one’s belovedness is, if you like, a powerful human instinct simmering beneath the contemporary politics of recognition and identity.
None of this means, of course, that today’s struggles to recognise human rights boil down to a sentimental desire for hugs or the nostalgic longing for home.
Nor does it mean that human rights don’t matter – of course they do. In a time when little left is sacred, human rights are the closest secular equivalent to articles of faith.
By guaranteeing the individual the political rights and entitlements due their membership in the human community, the discourse of rights serves our commitment to the idea that every human life has value, dignity, and significance.
But even so, as powerful and compelling as the rights discourse can be, it cannot do everything. It can guarantee tolerance and equality, but not love and embrace. And it cannot secure belonging and belovedness – a primal need that perhaps no earthly answer can fully satisfy.
Perhaps the desire to belong is so powerful because it bears a cosmic weight.
Our move away from a world that admits the transcendent has left us naked when it comes to questions of absolute meaning and significance. And yet the understanding of reality bequeathed by a religious account of everything is well able to address the need for existential recognition.
From the outset, the Christian story positions every human being as the object of unconditional divine love. As Catholic priest Henri Nouwen has written, “Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”
If we need to be recognised and validated by our intimate others, then perhaps that is a hint of a prior belonging, a prior belovedness that issues from God, the ultimate (and yet also intimate) ‘other’. Again, from Nouwen:
“Our preciousness, uniqueness and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time – our brief chronological existence – but by the One who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”
This divine favour is no abstract love from afar. The Christmas story claims that the eternal God meets us in ‘clock-time’ in the person of Jesus who, though born as a baby, grows up to be a teacher calling all to come back to God, who claims we belong with Him.
Perhaps the desire to belong is so powerful because it bears a cosmic weight – one only borne in embracing ourselves as the beloved of God.
As Nick Cave, one of our own poet-prophets has put it, “Everybody’s got a room, in God’s Hotel … you’ll never see a sign / hanging on the door / Sayin’ ‘No vacancies anymore’.”
This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia.
Dr Justine Toh is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.