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“Foreigners Everywhere”? – Home Within

Home is not where you're born..

“Home is not where you are born;
home is where all your attempts
to escape cease”.
― Naguib Mahfouz

This year’s Venice Biennale was themed “Foreigners everywhere”. The exhibition was a beautiful celebration of representation, showcasing the Global South and various minorities more prominently than I have ever witnessed at any other art fair. I was heartened that so many individuals, bearing the burdens of challenging life stories, found a platform to express their yearning for a place to call home and to be witnessed in it. Yet, alongside this joy, I felt some heaviness in my chest. As Tracy Chapman puts it “Why when there’re so many of us, are there people still alone?”

This widespread sense of loneliness, in my observations and experience, is linked to the notions of “belonging” and “identity”. The latter is quite an intricate subject I have been exploring for years and will save for another day. In this piece, I will delve into the former and explore the notion of “belonging” and its relation to feeling “at home”.
What does it mean to truly feel “at home”?

Some people leave home because they feel alienated in their birthplaces. Others don’t feel home in their own bodies, unable to reconcile their personal identity with the expectations of their community. People also flee their homeland for economic, social, or political reasons. Some are forcibly displaced or have never had a place they could call home. A deeply painful situation currently highlighted by the horrors inflected on the Palestinian population. This sense of estrangement extends to the children of immigrants or refugees, who may feel compelled to renounce their heritage to assimilate into the culture of their new country, living in perpetual conflict.

On a broader scale, modern societies, especially former colonial countries, have deep-seated identity crises that need addressing. These societal and practical issues cannot be overlooked. A task so monumental that it can seem to diminish the significance of individual experiences. Nonetheless, it is on the individual level that I choose to focus.

Part of the solution lies within each person. Establishing a connection with oneself, understanding one’s identity, and maintaining the courage to be authentic can convey strong messages to our society. This self-awareness is the first step in becoming secure enough in “who we are” that we can allow others to express theirs freely. Our sense of belonging doesn’t require the presence of similar others. To feel “at home” we primarily need to be seen, to be valued and to be loved.

There is a sharp difference between belonging, which is an authentic connection to oneself and others, and fitting in, which often involves sacrificing one’s true self for acceptance. The latter is a protective mechanism, although intended to shield us from harm, it frequently recreates the very childhood pain we are trying to avoid. Specifically, disconnection, misunderstanding, rejection, or worse, invisibility.
“Fitting in” pushes us towards some sort of idealized self-image as we imagine our environment wishes to see us. It feeds our perfectionism and our pride. It involves striving towards being “special”; another way for us to separate from ourselves and others, another way for us to close our hearts, even though it was stemming from the very need to connect.
Our idealized self-image often sets standards that, while seemingly virtuous, can hide more negative effects. Such considerations will make it difficult for us to discover the compulsive attitude that denies our imperfections. Holding onto such an image tends not only to hinder true self-acceptance, but also fosters feelings of shame, fears of being found out, and the need to conceal one’s true self. These elements can lead to significant tension, strain, guilt, and anxiety, and prevents genuine connections. When we fail to meet these ideals, we may feel overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness, plunging into deep unhappiness. However, true peace comes in finding our way back to who we really are, while recognizing our limitations and connecting from there with others without fear of judgment.

Each person’s journey toward authenticity not only enhances their own life but provides a foundation for healthier, more resilient individuals and societies. This is ever more important in the fragmented world of the digital age. While platforms and technological advancements promise to connect us, making us feel like integral parts of a vast community, the reality contrasts with these expectations, leaving individuals feeling isolated, uneasy, in a perpetual cycle of comparison and very lonely. This dilemma reflects a deep-seated longing for something that transcends digital interactions and touches the core of our human experience.

The journey back to oneself and to each other is encapsulated in Ram Dass’s quote “we are all walking each other home”. It is an ongoing process of sharing our own stories and creating, of expressing and listening. The remedy lies in cultivating spaces, both physical and metaphorical, where individuals can truly connect, share, and feel part of a collective human experience.

Engaging with expression, creativity and art (whether creating it or experiencing it) emerge as crucial elements in this process. It invites an exploration of shared humanity, reassuring us that we are not alone in our experiences. It provides a platform for visibility and voice, allowing individuals to express themselves in ways that are not only heard but also felt by others. It creates a space where mutual understanding and connection are possible. In embracing this path, we not only find our place in the world but also contribute to a more interconnected and empathetic global community.

As I am writing these words, within me resonates a voice that calls for authenticity and revels in diversity. It whispers a desire to remain true to myself without demanding conformity from others. My innate curiosity has always propelled me towards exploring and understanding various cultures, enriching my life immeasurably. Yet, this journey has not been without its challenges; for too long, I felt compelled to assimilate, to blend in to be accepted by those around me.
Learning and being in different cultures expanded my vision of life and my sense of self. However, I have reached a point where I no longer wish to conform but to boldly be myself, engaging with others in their uniqueness. This doesn’t come naturally to me; it takes a few trials and many errors. I try not to force it. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, I aim to be able to respect that: “Today my heart is not bold, today my heart doesn’t feel safe, today my heart is closed.” We also must embrace and respect the heart’s rhythm of opening and closing, a delicate pulsation akin to breathing, through which we experience the profound fragility and resilience of being human. However, I would try to foster the conditions within myself and around me to create a safe emotional space that allows for authentic connections, for the natural, unforced opening of the heart. Just as flowers bloom in the optimal warmth and light of the sun, so too does the human heart open in environments characterized by understanding, acceptance, and genuine care.

That evening, I wandered through the alleyways and bridges of Venice, the mosaic of narratives from the Biennale still resonating in me, some poignant, some painful, I watched the gondolas carrying its own assortment of foreigners. Amidst this, I somehow felt closer to home.

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