The Illusion of Autonomy & the Price of Belonging
“The river of my village doesn’t make you think about anything.
When you’re at its bank you’re only at its bank.”1
To belong is not only a great feeling, but our deepest need. Everyone wants to belong, but to truly belong, as ourselves, without having to give up aspects of our true selves – that is an experience unmatched by any other. We all want that!
When we carry certain roles for our families and our groups, when we try to rectify something in our families through our lives, when we unconsciously spend our lives trying to bring something into order – then we do not get to truly belong, to belong in a healthy, satisfying way. And then we are also not free.
This is one of the most significant insights of Systemic Constellations, through which it is possible to identify, quite easily in fact, what the boundaries of our belonging to different systems are, where we belong or who belongs to us, as well as what stands in the way of our belonging. According to insights gained through this method, the majority of troubles we experience in life are actually caused by injuries to belonging. And a lot of difficulties we deal with through it could, in fact, be classified as a BELONGING DISORDER.
Often we unconsciously push life and success away in order to belong, or to include someone else who has been excluded from our family, to ensure their belonging. And in doing that, we lose our place in life and cannot fully live to our true potential. The issue of belonging is a crucial one for our health, successful relating and sense of well-being, to such an extent that often finding our right place, agreeing to it and living life from that space IS the whole therapy.
We all Belong and we all Belong Equally
It is not possible not to belong. With our most intimate groups and most crucial groups for our survival, happiness and well-being – our families – there is no choice. We are all born into a certain family, with its members the way they are and with everything that happened in that family, its history and everything else that belongs to that family, and then also to us. We are part of it and it is a part of us.
The family group is connected through biological ties, but also through the ties of their shared fate. What constitutes the FATE of a family is everything that has happened in this family across the generations. Well, some of us might be lucky; we are born into a perfectly functioning family, which hasn’t experienced any traumas, which is affluent and all its members are healthy and successful. Maybe there are such families. I haven’t encountered many. What is a much more likely scenario is that we arrive into a family where some past trauma is lingering over its members across the generations, with some traumatic event sending shock waves down the generational line. And this shock wave becomes an intrinsic part of the ocean of our life.
If somewhere in this family’s past a woman died giving birth, there will most likely be the fear of pregnancy instilled into women of this family in subsequent generations. Or if we are born to parents still frozen in grief over the loss of their first child, we will be frozen too. Or if the side our grandfather was fighting on in the war is considered the ‘wrong one’, we will feel shame and rejection as we are growing up in this family, often not knowing why, not connecting it with our grandfather’s experiences, being affected by it without even any conscious knowledge about his war involvement.
As humans we are all similar – we don’t like to experience pain, grief, sadness, shame, guilt. We want to protect ourselves from that. And in particular we want to protect our children from such experiences. We try to push away these feelings and the memory of persons and situations they are connected with. So we never, ever talk about this grandfather we are ashamed of; we judge him and somehow quite naively (and we humans are also all very similar in this) we think if we do this, that we can distance ourselves from him, that we can really deny him the right to belong to us and to our family. We exclude him from our heart.
But, as we know, belonging in our families is regulated by much stronger forces than our rational will. Our families are hard-wired in such a way that belonging is not optional and also doesn’t depend on whether someone acted honourably or not, whether someone died young or lived long, whether he or she was born legitimate or not, considered good or bad. We all belong and we all have an equal right to belong.
So what happens, if we try to exclude someone in this way? The grief, the shame, the invisibility, the pain will only shift to some other member of a family, a younger one, usually the one least able to defend themselves – a child. So, a grandson of that grandfather will start behaving and living a life, which resembles the grandfather’s. This dynamic is visible in Germany in the neo-Nazi phenomena. And also in Croatia, where the generation of the WWII grandchildren is holding on to some of the Ustasha2 ideology. The same happens with the totalitarian aspects of communist ideology that we judge as bad and shameful and in that way exclude. It will somehow be included in lives of future generations (as indeed we witness with both of these aspects of the Croatian past continuing to be very much alive on the Croatian contemporary political and social scene).
The rule of belonging is that whatever we exclude through our judgement, pain or shame, will come back through the back door and re-include itself.
The Need to Belong
But what about our own need to belong? Can we exclude ourselves? Do we have to belong to our family? In short, the answer is yes. What is often misunderstood is how strong our need to belong is. The issues of belonging, and the denial of belonging we inflict on ourselves and others have serious consequences. Belonging is not optional, a matter of rational decision: it is a matter of survival and it is on a level of instinct. It is an inbuilt mechanism, which guards our family groups, which determines who belongs and who not and which we cannot change easily. We can change our name, we can migrate to a far away country; we can break all contact with our family; we can adopt different spiritual and social communities in the hope that they will provide ‘better families’ for us, but we will not be able to change anything of importance. We can’t change what happened in our family; we can’t make things different from what they are, we cannot have a different grandfather or not have this ‘out of wedlock’ half-brother, and certainly we cannot have different, better parents (which most people who come to therapy wish for and believe they are entitled to).
The good news is that we do not even have to; we don’t need to change anything that happened in order to live happy and successful lives. Our happiness does not depend so much on what happened in our lives and our families, but on how much we are in tune with it. So, luckily for us, to be happy, we do not need to be born into a perfectly functioning, rich family. All that is needed for us to find happiness is to agree to EVERYTHING the way it is and the way it happened. Accepting everyone’s right to belong and accepting our belonging, makes us belong in a good way.
Then this belonging does not feel like unhealthy dependence or limitation to our freedom, but like a springboard from which we can jump into the river of life, wherever she might be carrying us.
On the other hand, rejection and non-acceptance of our roots and the ties that bind us actually keep us tied firmly to the shore we are trying to escape from. Only with the full acknowledgement of this rope, which ties us to the shore, can we untie it and float away. Not seeing how firmly we are tied and in what way, or refusing to accept our ties, makes us entangled forever in an unhealthy way, with a lot of accompanying frustration and a lot of strife for autonomy. We want to be independent, free, autonomous. It is as if in the process of trying to free ourselves from the ties, which bind us, we keep throwing our arms and legs around and thus become even more entangled.
Agreeing to the conditions of our belonging, with all the limitations this might involve, paradoxically, cuts the knot and sets us free.
Belonging or Autonomy – a False Dilemma
Our wish for autonomy is a wish to be free from entangled, unhealthy, blind belonging. When we belong in a healthy way, we have no desire for autonomy. Behind striving for autonomy there is a desire to run away from entangled belonging. But autonomy is not an answer or the opposite end of entangled belonging. Healthy belonging is. It is not as if autonomy and belonging are on opposite sides of the continuum. Healthy autonomy arises from healthy belonging.
So the question is not so much ‘to belong or not to belong’. We do not have this choice anyway. The question is HOW TO BELONG IN A HEALTHY WAY. And this is a question the method of Systemic Constellations can give an answer to in a lived, experiential, effective and profound way.
The answer is somewhere along the lines of understanding and accepting our place in the world, exactly as it has been given to us, together with our families and everything that happened, without any desire to change anything, being in complete agreement with our destiny, our path. And also seeing our path not as separate, but embedded in a much bigger picture of which we are only a small part, indistinguishable from others.
The price of belonging only feels too heavy if we are in disagreement with the conditions our belonging sets for us. Paradoxically, what gives us some freedom is only the full acknowledgement of the ties that bind us and our full agreement with them. Once we are prepared to pay the full price, we realise that it is doable and not impossible after all. Whatever was given to us, we have the capacity to carry. And the capacity to agree to!
There is no Autonomy
There is yet another aspect to this false dilemma of ‘belonging versus autonomy’. Whatever we mean by this concept of autonomy, we can hardly find it anywhere in nature, in the world around us or in our social systems. This is simply because it is not how the world is structured. We are all connected. We all move in systems within systems within larger systems, in which we are all under the influence of systemic forces, which ‘run the show’. Through their observation of: flocks of birds, schools of fish and herd animals, biologists have discovered that individuality is a questionable concept in our living world. We are also asked to dispose of this concept in every new constellation, as we see how each, so-called individual life, is intrinsically connected with and influenced by systemic forces of the family and other groups we belong to. Similar forces that organise flocks of birds are also responsible for the organisation of human social systems.
Our concept of autonomous individuality has also been challenged through the cutting edge findings of quantum science and new consciousness research, as well as through many ancient philosophical and spiritual teachings of different schools and traditions:
“Where exactly do ‘you’ end and the rest of the universe begin? If you internalise and change with every interaction you have with the universe – every bit of food you eat, every person you meet, every place you have visited – what exactly does it mean to be you? How can you be considered autonomous? What we regard as Self is only a physical manifestation of our experience, the summation of our Bond with the universe. Our interaction with our world is a conversation, not a monologue; just as the observer changes what he observes, that which is observed changes the observer. And as we now realise, these influences are not limited to those of our immediate environment or even to the earth itself but extend to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.”3
We are all connected. We all belong. And we are all part of something bigger. Often the solution to most troubling problems lies in finding exactly where and how we belong, as well as finding out who belongs to us, and then also in transcending this belonging or expanding the framework of ‘our family’ or ‘our nation’ or ‘our religion’ to include everyone and everything. Or in other words, in the language of constellations: outgrowing lesser conscience and embracing bigger, universal, spiritual conscience.
There is a certain kind of autonomy, which might come to us, usually later in life, as we climb the mountain of spiritual insight higher and higher, until we find ourselves alone at the peak. Hellinger has stated that personal development means letting groups go and finding new groups until you find yourself alone. It is the experience of someone who doesn’t belong anymore and is free to connect in the moment and let go again. This freedom from belonging to any particular family, national, religious or any other group is attained as we experience our connection to that which guides us all and which is behind all our earthly efforts. Such ultimate autonomy is invariably spiritual in nature and is expressed in our surrender, belonging and merging with the Divine.
This is something the Constellation method can assist us with. It is also the inevitable outcome of our exposure to this work, through which we learn to surrender to the forces bigger than us, which we encounter through it.
The way HOME – where we all Belong
To stay with the metaphor of a boat, we can see that often in our wish to disentangle ourselves from anything difficult that belongs to us, we row like mad towards some imagined autonomy, not realising the boat is firmly tied to the shore. If we allowed ourselves to rest for a while in the boat which is gently swaying, maybe lie on our back with the view of the expansive, limitless sky and allowed ourselves to feel at one with the sky, with the river whose waves sway us gently, at one with the boat, the shore and even the rope, if we allow ourselves this experience of ONENESS, then we will know we belong right here and everywhere else at the same time.
We might also realise that there is nowhere else to get to and that we can’t be separate from that boat any more than the waves are separate from the water, which sways us gently. We might even fall asleep lying like this in the boat, giving up our struggle for freedom, surrendering thus our independence and autonomy ever more. So we might not even notice when the rope loosened and our boat, carried by the river’s current, started its effortless journey downstream. We are free to be at one with the river, carrying us and with us all those who belong to us and to whom we belong, to maybe meet other boats on the river, as we all eventually find our way floating to the ocean, our HOME to which we all belong.
So, to paraphrase Hesse, whoever has learned how to listen to a river no longer wishes to be a river. He wants to be nothing except what he is. This is home. This is happiness.4
- The Ustaša – Croatian Revolutionary Movement, commonly known as Ustaše, was a Croatian fascist, ultranationalist and terrorist organisation, active, as one organisation, between 1929 and 1945. Its members murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma as well as political dissidents in Yugoslavia during World War II. They were known for their particularly brutal and sadistic methods of execution, which often included torture and dismemberment.
- Alberto Caeiro. The Keeper of Sheep (www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1190233-o-guardador-de-rebanhos)
- McTaggart, Lynne (2011) The Bond: Connecting through the space between us. Atria Books, New York, USA.
- Hermann Hesse: “Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.” (Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte, www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2225608-b-ume-betrachtungen-und-gedichte)
First published in “The Knowing Field”, the International Journal for Systemic Constellations, December 2019