The Waning of Belonging
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“The Waning of Belonging,” Ensign, Oct. 1989, 68–72

Speaking Today

The Waning of Belonging

A few years ago in general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley talked about Caroline Hemenway Harman, an “unknown and unsung” woman “who held together, nurtured, loved, and reared to useful maturity two large families … in an environment of grinding adversity.”1

Caroline married George Harman in 1895 and bore seven children, one of whom died in infancy. When she was thirty-nine years old, her husband passed away suddenly. A few years later, in 1919, her sister died in an influenza epidemic, and Caroline took her sister’s new baby boy into her home.

Within three weeks of her sister’s death, Caroline’s own daughter Annie passed away, and Caroline—or “Aunt Carrie,” as she was called—collapsed from the strain of these events. She recovered but continued to suffer a serious case of diabetes. Not long afterward, she married her deceased sister’s husband—thus becoming a mother to thirteen children. Five years later, her second husband died in a chemical accident.

Aunt Carrie consequently assumed responsibility not only for all the children, but also for the family’s large farm. In addition, for eighteen years, she was a ward Relief Society president. Caroline was living proof that “charity never faileth”; she looked after the welfare of nearly one thousand ward members with the same devotion she gave her family.

She later married again, but not long afterward, her husband suffered a stroke. She cared for all his needs until his death five years later. She herself passed away at age sixty-seven.

Things have changed somewhat since Aunt Carrie’s day—and not all for the better. One such change I call “the waning of belonging,” a complex and difficult development, to which the answers seem increasingly unclear.

The problem is illustrated by a child who came home from school one day, crying and upset. “Is it true that I don’t really belong to you, Mom?” she asked her mother.

The startled mother asked what her daughter meant. The little girl said that her teacher had told the class that everyone is free to control his or her own life, and that no one belongs to anyone else; children don’t belong to parents, husbands don’t belong to wives—nobody belongs to anybody.

The girl said, “I am yours, aren’t I, Mom?”

The mother took her in her arms and hugged her tightly. “Of course you’re mine—and I’m yours, too.”

We live in a time when a bewildering fear clouds our willingness to make loving commitments to others. As the teacher’s comment to her class suggests, many people in today’s society are increasingly unsure whether the bonds of marriage and kinship are valuable ties that bind, or ties of sheer bondage.

In earlier times, common sense told us the obvious difference between these opposite ends of the spectrum of human relationships. But in these days of the liberation movements, some voices say that we are not really free until we break loose from all binding relationships and commitments. Belonging seems to them enslaving rather than enriching. Yet those who break loose from the bonds of commitment are likely to replace their previous sense of belonging only with a sense of longing. Then this age of apparent liberation also becomes an age of isolation and loneliness. Ours is the age of the waning of belonging.

A man and woman who love each other still feel joy and meaning in the thought that they could belong to each other. Many phrases in the language of romantic love are based on the idea of belonging. “Be mine,” say the candy hearts we see on Valentine’s Day. “I’m yours,” proclaimed a hit song of the ’50s.

A red heart is our symbol for the word love—used on everything from bumper stickers to billboards. In its highest form, this symbol represents the ultimate gesture of giving our hearts to those we love. To offer our hearts is to offer our innermost selves. If the offer is accepted, there may be a wedding—that ancient, sacred ritual in which a man and woman give themselves to each other in the “bonds” of matrimony.

The question is, does giving our hearts to others bring us freedom—or slavery? A related question might be: Does giving our hearts to God bring us freedom—or slavery?

One verse from the old Christian hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” reads:

Let thy goodness, as a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;

Seal it for thy courts above.2

There is that symbol of the heart again, expressing not only love, but also pointing toward the spiritual commitment of a broken heart and a contrite spirit that binds us to the liberating powers of eternity.

Curiously, the invitation to submit to God’s will initially looks like a restriction on our freedom, yet ends by bringing us the full-blown liberty of eternal life. Laws and rules may seem to limit rather than free us; but it is only because of the law of gravity that we can walk. Only by adhering to the laws of physics can we compose beautiful music and send up spaceships. Obedience is liberating, not confining.

By contrast, Satan’s invitation to disobey God’s laws initially looks like an expansion of our freedom; yet, if we follow Satan, we will end up in bondage to him.

Just as Satan twists and exploits his followers’ trust, there have always been people who have exploited and abused their family members’ trust. For that reason, when I express concern about the waning of belonging, I am not ignoring the harm done by abusive parents, spouses, or authority figures.

Although some use the vulnerability of intimate relationships to inflict harm on others, that does not make sustained intimacy itself the problem. Yet some would “liberate” children from the “captivity” of family ties. As one writer put it, “the child’s subjugated status [is] rooted in the same benevolent despotism that kings, husbands, and slave masters claimed as their moral right.”3 But children need continuity and stability in their relationships with parents in order to develop mature, personal freedom. Cutting children’s family ties prematurely can abandon them to their “rights.”

A few observers are beginning to see what we are doing to ourselves. A recent essay in Time magazine about American children noted that “a motif of absence—moral, emotional and physical—plays through the lives of many children now. It may be an absence of authority and limits, or of emotional commitment. … [Whatever it is] there appears to be a new form of [adult] neglect: absence.”4

A best-selling study of middle-class society called Habits of the Heart describes how Americans’ views about marriage have shifted—from considering it a relatively permanent social institution to regarding it as a temporary source of personal fulfillment. As a result, when marriage commitments intrude on their preferences and convenience, many people feel entitled—even obliged—to walk away. Despite this pervasive focus on self-interest, these researchers also found that the nostalgic notion of a marriage and family life based upon loving and permanent commitments is “still the dominant American ideal.”5

There is a stirring echo of this thought in a new anthology of American poetry that deals with the theme of fathers and sons, in which nine-tenths of the poems included have been written since 1950. The anthology’s editor writes that the spirit of these poems is “a summons to testify about a failed intimacy, a failed life, perhaps to redeem it through a new effort of understanding. … Whole sections of our nation are living in fatherless homes. … Often the father is more than absent; he is lost. … The son goes in search of the father, to be reconciled in a healing embrace.”6

It is a theme with which poet Stanley Kunitz instinctively identifies, having written a poem after the death of his own father, which reads in part:

down sandy road

Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet

Curdle of fields, where the plums

Dropped with their load of ripeness, one by one

Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet

After the secret master of my blood,

Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love

Kept me in chains

At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! you know

The way, I’ll wipe the mudstains from your clothes;

No trace, I promise, will remain. Instruct

Your son, whirling between two wars,

In the Gemara of your gentleness,

For I would be a child to those who mourn

And a brother to the foundlings of the field

And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.

O teach me how to work and keep me kind.7

Here is the paradox of loving bondage, the spirit of belonging—liberating, yet confining. Perhaps our attitude toward morally demanding cultural expectations is like our feeling about father figures—we dislike authority that temporarily represses in order to teach. But when the authority of our legal and social norms “gives in” to our pleas for “freedom,” the momentary sense of freedom we may feel soon dissolves into a sense of abandonment and we cry out for help: “O, father, teach me how to work and keep me kind.”

I have wondered where today’s anti-belonging attitudes have come from. Of course, large-scale historical forces have been at work over several centuries. In his research on ancient societies, English legal historian Sir Henry Maine found that the family originally predated the individual as the primary unit of society. Since then, wrote Maine, “the individual [has been] steadily substituted for the Family as the unit of which civil laws take account.”8

In the last few years, this gradual, centuries-old movement from family to individual has accelerated its pace with jarring speed. Sweeping cultural currents have influenced it. The revolutionary spirit of the past generation questioned all traditional patterns of institutional authority over individuals. Student protests of that era focused on abuses of governmental power and attacked the authority of universities, schools, and businesses.

In addition, the civil rights movement attacked the authoritarianism that protected socially privileged classes, and the women’s movement attacked traditions that reinforced male authority. Individual rights concepts in the courts accelerated these movements’ pace, giving legal legitimacy to the rejection of institutional power and implying that any relationship of binding dependency was suspect.

Fortunately, these broad movements awakened higher levels of human sensitivity and have led to some desirable reforms. But they have also had corrosive effects on family relationships. The radical wing of modern feminism, for example, has gone “right to the heart of the matter, which is the historic nature of the role of each of the sexes,”9 complaining that the authoritarian tradition of family roles is a major source of oppression against both women and children.

Partly as a result of such questioning, delegates to the 1980 White House Conference on the Family could not even agree on the meaning of the word family. One delegate proposed to define it as “two or more persons who share resources, responsibility for decisions, values and goals, and have commitment to one another over time,” regardless of blood, legal ties, adoption, or marriage.10 This proposal lost by only two votes among 761 delegates.

Another possible cause of today’s uneasiness about belonging is anxiety about nuclear war. One recent college graduate attributes her generation’s emotional disengagement to the constant threat of nuclear extinction, which “renders the object of all attachments impermanent and tenuous.”11

Whatever the causes of the waning of belonging, the human need to belong is more fundamental than the fears and the passion for rights that have led society where it is today. It is vital, therefore, that those who have the gospel help a lost and wandering generation return “home” to its moorings.

For instance, we can help defend marriage and kinship against emerging legal concepts that favor individual rights above all other considerations. We must resist the naive belief that people can be liberated from the apparent “bondage” of family ties and still have the personal support system found only in long-term commitments. To do so, we must be willing to take the risk that not everyone will live up to the commitments he or she makes. To insist on protection against all risks can change an unconditional relationship to a conditional one, which by definition limits the relationship’s ability to yield the highest human fulfillment.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh looked back on the sorrows of her life—including the kidnapping and murder of her baby in the 1920s—with these words: “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”12 In our nurturing of belonging, we must be willing to remain vulnerable.

Most of all, we must renew the value of human ties in our marriages, our families, and across the generations. Joseph Smith called the sealing of families together a “welding link,” without which neither we nor our ancestors can be saved. (See D&C 128:18.) Our duties to our kinfolk are sacred. Think of Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah must return before Christ’s second coming to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers,” lest God “smite the earth with a curse.” (Mal. 4:6.) Think, too, of the commandment God gave through Moses: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” (Ex. 20:12; italics added.)

Why does the Lord link the honoring of parents to a promise about long life—possibly even the survival of society? There is a special meaning, one whose depths we have not yet plumbed, in the relationship between the long-term liberty of society and our attitudes toward our progenitors and our posterity. We are more willing to exercise self-control and restraint when we see that our actions help ensure the survival of our posterity.

The welding links of marriage and kinship also bless us in more immediate, personal ways. Family life is one of the Lord’s primary means of perfecting individuals. In our unqualified commitments to spouses, children, parents, and brothers and sisters, we learn and grow to an extent not possible in less-demanding relationships. As Michael Novak wrote, “Being married and having children has impressed upon my mind certain lessons. … My dignity as a human being depends perhaps more on what sort of husband and parent I am than on any professional work I am called to do. My bonds to them hold me back from many sorts of opportunities. And yet these bonds are, I know, my liberation. They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be.”13

I once saw how this kind of learning can take place. One of our children was in great difficulty in his fourth-grade class. He needed to complete a certain project by the next day, or he would face disaster. After dinner, my wife, Marie, told me that she had thought of a way she could help him. I ushered our other children out of the kitchen, and the handicraft project began.

I periodically heard outbursts from our fourth-grader, who kept insisting that he wouldn’t do another thing on the project. I was ready to send him to his room and tell him to forget it, but Marie calmly urged me to let her proceed with the plan.

After about three hours, as I was tucking the other children into bed, our son and his mother entered the bedroom. Carrying his project as proudly as if it were a birthday cake, he told the other children to come and see it.

He had made every stitch of it himself. He placed it on a counter and started for his bed. Then he looked back at his mother with a broad, boyish grin. He ran across the room, threw his arms around her waist, and hugged her close. The two of them exchanged glances that carried great meaning. He went to bed, and we left the room.

“What happened?” I asked my wife. “How did you do it?”

Marie replied that she had made up her mind that no matter what he said or did, she wouldn’t raise her voice or lose her patience. She had also decided that leaving him was not an alternative, even if the project took all night. Then she made this significant observation: “I didn’t know I had it in me to do it.”

She had discovered within herself a reservoir of patience and endurance she never would have found without the deep commitment that grew from a sense of real belonging. Belonging is for thick and thin, and this was one of the thin times! From learning to feel and to practice such immovable loyalty to another person, we learn how to love—indeed, how to be more like the Savior.

Not long ago, I saw how the bonds of belonging can cross the generations. Our oldest son was born just after the death of my father, and, in his memory, we gave our son his grandfather’s name as his middle name. For years, this old-fashioned name seemed awkward to our son.

But when he took up debate in high school and learned that his grandfather had been a champion debater for Brigham Young University, our son began to identify with his grandfather. My father had kept a personal journal during much of his adult life, and one day I showed my son an entry describing a debate between BYU and Princeton. I left that volume of the journal with him, and he ended up reading all three volumes.

Some months later, our son worked his way through a particularly trying experience and came to me late at night to tell me what had happened. He said, “Dad, I never knew Grandpa Hafen, but I felt that he was there to help me.”

Not long afterward, as that son was anticipating receiving his mission call, we went to a weekend family reunion in southern Utah. On Sunday afternoon, our son borrowed his grandmother’s car and drove alone to the isolated little canyon where his grandfather had loved to ride his horse—the place, in fact, where he had passed away. At an appropriate spot, my son knelt to pray, asking for the Lord’s help to sort through his questions about his mission and his faith. Something very special then occurred, and at his missionary farewell, he described the deep assurance and new insights he had carried out of the canyon that day.

As I think about those precious personal moments, I have no doubt about the reality of a bond and a sense of belonging between the generations on both sides of the veil. Through these experiences, my son gained a sense of identity and purpose. His tie with the eternal world became more real, and the resulting sense of destiny and mission he felt sharpened his life’s focus and lifted his expectations.

Our sense of belonging to one another—best represented by the bonds of kinship—foreshadows our belonging in the eternal family of God. Our willingness to discipline our desires enough to honor commitments to loved ones prepares us to belong to him who is our Father. As we thus learn to “belong,” we can experience for ourselves the meaning of those searching lines about belonging from “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”:

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,

But yet in love he sought me,

And on His shoulder gently laid,

And home, rejoicing, brought me.

Another verse of the hymn reads:

I nothing lack if I am His

And He is mine forever.14

Belonging can be forever, because love can be forever.

Was Carolyn Hemenway Harman, the mother who buried three husbands, reared two families, and was Relief Society president for eighteen years “liberated”? Many people in today’s society would say no—imagine yielding one’s life in perpetual service to husbands, children, and neighbors whose needs consumed her very life! They might have said to her, “Aunt Carrie, get out from under all that. You’re entitled to a little happiness of your own. It’s time somebody waited on you for a change. Don’t let them do this to you. You don’t belong to them.”

But Aunt Carrie knew better; for the King of Love was her Shepherd. She loved and served him by loving and serving those to whom she fully and freely belonged. She was theirs, and they were hers—forever! In thus belonging, she who gave her life, a day at a time, to serving other people for the Master’s sake also found her life and her liberation; for she came to know the truth, and the truth made her free. May we be wise enough to emulate her.


  1. Ensign, May 1982, p. 46.

  2. Hymns, 1950, no. 70.

  3. Patricia Wald, “Making Sense Out of the Rights of Youth,” Human Rights 4 (1974): 13, 15.

  4. Time, 8 Aug. 1988, p. 32.

  5. Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 86.

  6. New York Times Book Review, 22 Feb. 1987, p. 36.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ancient Law, 1st American ed., from 2nd London ed. (New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1870), p. 163.

  9. Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 83.

  10. Time, 16 June 1980, p 31.

  11. Ingrid Canright, “Point of View,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 June 1985, p. 72.

  12. Time, 5 Feb. 1973, p. 35.

  13. “The Family Out of Favor,” Harper’s, Apr. 1976, p. 37.

  14. Henry Williams Baker, “Dominus Regit Me” (Psalm 23), in Hymnal, comp. by Mrs. Theodore C. Williams (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1890), no. 7.

  • Bruce C. Hafen, recently appointed as provost of Brigham Young University, is a former dean of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.