Real Belonging and the Uncomfortable Truth about Comfort Zones
Aishah was a student on my postgraduate careers guidance course at the University of East London. She was in her late twenties, with a young child, a quick mind and a determination to make a difference.
Our fellow students were a diverse bunch. A couple were young, recent graduates without much work experience. A few were parents, returning to work after full time childcaring. Several were career changer: I had worked on the railways, another had been the operational manager of a small business, a third was an ex-teacher. We came from middle-class and working-class backgrounds. Some had achieved well in school and others had struggled. We had diverse ethnic heritage too, from English, Bangladeshi, African, Irish and mixed race.
As yet, unground down by the ‘crank-the-handle’ careers system that most of us went on to enter, we shared that feeling of idealism at the difference we could make to people’s careers. Most of us expected to work in schools, hoping to inform and advise 14 to 16 year olds at a pivotal time in their lives.
Our diversity enriched the group. Among us, as with our clients, were varying levels of confidence, clarity about what we wanted for the future, ability to advocate for our own point of view.
One day, Aishah did just that with a powerful story. She told it passionately, daring us to defy that she had made the wrong choice.
“I used to go to a school where everyone was white. Because I was Muslim, I had a really bad time. I was bullied a lot. And even when people were not bullying me, they didn’t understand me. They judged me or ignored me. I didn’t have any friends.”
Aishah’s parents moved her from the school where she was miserable to another school where the majority of the children, like her, came from families of Bangladeshi origin.
“It made all the difference,” Aishah said. “I didn’t stand out any more. I was able to get on with my work and do well. I made loads of friends, and some of them are still my friends now. I was so unhappy in my first school, it is really important that people should get to be with other people like them.”
Moving schools had clearly made all the difference to Aishah. But I was struck that she was telling us, this varied group, her story. She was no longer amongst others ‘like’ her, and yet clearly felt safe and supported enough to reveal the deep impact this experience had had on her life. There must be more to finding place to belong, I concluded, that just being with people with a similar background to you.
The Uncomfortable Truth about Comfort Zones
The plane was just taking off from Los Angeles airport on the second leg of the journey to New Zealand from London. I was travelling with a friend on holiday. I’d heard great things about the beauty of the country and despite the arduous journey, was sure the time, money and short-term discomfort was worth it.
The man sitting beside me from LAX made me wonder if I was right.
This chatty American had never before left Florida, let alone the US. A professional diver, he was on his way to a US base in Antarctica. He was well out of his comfort zone – having spent all his life amongst people who held one set of views and had one set of experiences, he clearly found it difficult to handle me, who disagreed with almost everything he said.
To be fair, I found it difficult too. His views were not just radically different from mine, I felt frustrated that he hadn’t really thought them through. When I challenged his support for the death penalty with the argument that mistakes sometimes get made in the criminal justice system, and one person falsely executed was enough to make the whole system invalid, he simply agreed with me.
I was in the full flow of my most judgemental mode. I’m sure that anyone watching would have seen me roll my eyes.
“They have told us we ought to change our money into New Zealand dollars. I don’t know why!” he said at one point.
“Because, they don’t accept US dollars in New Zealand,” I said hesitantly, barely able to believe that I had to explain this.
“Really?” he exclaimed in genuinely innocent surprise.
After a while, clearly noticing my growing irritation, my friend offered to swap places with me, and talked, in a friendly manner, about diving for the rest of the journey. It was a relief to me. I didn’t have to put up with those small-minded views any longer.
But I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the most small-minded person on that plane had actually been me. The American had been consistently friendly, while I had been judgemental and dismissive. His views had, like mine, been born of his life experience, and he was willing to listen to other points of view – he just hadn’t had many chances to hear them. I, on the other hand, had been completely unwilling to listen to his.
And by being unwilling to venture out of my own comfort zone, I’m sure I reinforced his inclination never to venture out of his again.
The Power, and Challenge, of Connection
How ever open-minded we believe ourselves to be, we all find it easier to connect only with those closest to us, to people with views that echo our own.
But there is real value in connecting to people beyond our usual circles. It can bring us insight, understanding, intimacy and be a deeply creative experience. If division is what got us into this mess in the first place (look at the current state of politics in the US and Europe, for example) then connection is the way out.
Connecting with others is always challenging. Even connecting with those we love is hard. As you get closer, inevitably you come out of the ‘falling-in-love honeymoon’ period and into the realisation that the other person has annoying habits, goals that differ from yours and their own opinions.
The human race would have been in deep trouble if people had been unable to work out these differences. A combination of desire to make it work, the social skills we have learned throughout our lives and the good outweighing the bad, means that in many cases we can find a way, despite the bumps along the way. Love may not conquer all, but it certainly makes a difference.
How much harder, then is it if there is no love between you? What if there is suspicion, misunderstanding or hate? Then connecting with others can require you to go way beyond your comfort zone.
The artist, Grayson Perry, became curious about the strength of feeling about the BREXIT vote, and the animosity that seemed to have developed between those that voted Leave and those that voted Remain, and his curiosity led him to a creative project.
Perry asked people from what he called ‘the two great tribes of our time’ to send him photos of themselves and their ideas of Britishness. From the images, he created two large vases as part of an exhibition at the Serpentine gallery titled ‘The Most popular Art Exhibition Ever!’
Perry then brought each group to see the vases, first separately, and then together. The people were all proud to be immortalised on the vases and chatted within their group happily getting to know one another. When brought into contact with the other group, each tribe stood in its own corner, expressing their views across a large expanse of empty floor.
But Perry, who despite being voting Remain himself had stayed curious and respectful of both sides throughout the process, pointed out to both groups how similar the vases were. The colour each had chosen for their vase was blue. The images of Britishness were almost identical: teapots, seasides, dog-walking. The people themselves looked almost the same too. Perry had named the vases ‘Matching Pair’ saying “they’ve come out surprisingly similar. I actually found it rather touching.”
As he showed them that they had more in common than they had allowed themselves to see, the groups softened, and moved. Soon all the people were mingling and chatting. It was no longer possible to see who had come from which tribe. They remembered that in many ways they wanted the same things, despite believing in different ways to achieve it. 
When feeling like an outsider, it is all too easy to focus on our differences, on the things that divide us. It is also easy to remember that we have, in murdered MP Jo Cox’s words, #moreincommon than divides us, but then to do nothing to go beyond our comfort zone.
The real challenge is to find a way to listen to differing views, deeply, with respect, while retaining respect for our own thoughts and feelings. In this deep listening comes real connection – the kind of connection that allows each person to be who they are, to truly belong, no matter how different they are. Then perhaps, no-one need feel like an outsider any longer.
 The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/06/grayson-perry–depict-brexit-tribes-rival-leave-remain-vases accessed 7th Aug 2017.
 Grayson Perry: Divided Britain, Channel 4, 29 May 2017