Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Strange Adventures in the US Air Force: Belonging, Part 2

For Part 1 of this pair of posts, go here.

Belonging is important. We humans are social creatures, and feeling a sense of belonging increases our resilience to life's traumas, increases our happiness, and helps us live longer. Science confirms these benefits.

But our very mobile modern lives can sometimes make finding and keeping social groups difficult. Even if we ourselves don't move, our friends and family do. Some people have no problems moving, making new friends, or adjusting to a new situation. Others struggle, feel lonely, and quietly and painfully endure isolation.

When George and I found ourselves ostracized during his Air Liaison Tour with the Army Rangers, we found ways to make that two years as rich and meaningful as possible...without all the friends and support system we'd had when he was assigned to an Air Force squadron. Here are a few ideas you might be able to adapt if you find yourself in similar circumstances.

1. Meet your neighbors. I welcomed new neighbors to our apartment complex with brownies and made a few friends in the process. One of those neighbors, Mary, was married to the manager of the Columbus Country Club. She invited me to the monthly Christian Women's Club meetings there, and I even debuted as a wedding gown model in the country club's annual bridal show. Spiritual enrichment, fun social events, and girly dress-up all helped build a healthier sense of community and connection. You just never know where meeting a new person will take you!

2. Learn something new. George needed to get a masters degree for career advancement, and our lack of social life made this easier for him. He took night classes at a university where I taught, so we would meet for dinner before classes, and it was a wonderful way for us to connect. On weekends, we sat in our study working for hours, he on homework and I on grading and lesson plans. It was lovely to spend time together even though we were working hard. He actually enjoyed many of his graduate classes.

3. Commit fully to whatever you're doing. I was fresh out of graduate school at Wichita State University when we arrived in Columbus. Getting work teaching wasn't a problem...there was a shortage of college English instructors in Georgia and Alabama, and I ended up turning down job offers in both states. How wonderful!

In working at three different colleges, I taught lots of classes I had never taught before (remedial phonics and pronunciation, world literature, business writing, etc.), and even the class I had lots of experience with had different texts and requirements depending on the school. I networked with other instructors and professors, and spent countless hours learning more about teaching by actually teaching than I ever learned in my graduate teaching class.

I also accepted additional academic duties when they came my way...which for adjunct faculty isn't very often. Because I spent so much time on the campuses and knew the full-time faculty, I had opportunities to serve as a judge on a panel for scholarships and to teach summer school...things that rarely came up for adjunct faculty at the time.

Because of my extended office hours, I had time to work with students who needed extra help. This commitment to teaching was deeply enriching and soul-satisfying, not to mention helpful for my students, many of whom were older, worked to support families, or had disabilities. My flexibility made me more available for them, and they appreciated that. When one student's work schedule changed mid-quarter, he and I were able to meet a few hours a week at the library to cover instruction time and go over his work. Instead of having to drop the class, he finished with a B+.

The greatest blessing of my commitment to my students came in the form of a life-long friend and prayer partner named Lally. She was my student for two semesters, and when the teacher/student relationship was over, Lally made sure that George and I both felt a home away from home. She made food for us when we were stressed, she invited us for dinner, she prayed for and with us, and she helped us run errands when we were moving.

In other words, actively seeking growth and satisfaction in your work can make up for lack in social life. Eventually, you'll develop a social life from that enthusiasm.

4. Change your attitude. Sometimes, we get into negative thought patterns that trap us in negative situations. If you're feeling isolated, ostracized, or excluded in a situation where you have little control, you can change the way you think about it.

George and I couldn't control what the Rangers thought of us, but we could control our attitude toward the Rangers. Instead of resenting them or dwelling on our feelings of exclusion, we accepted that the Rangers and their families are an amazing group of people whose training and commitment to serving our nation are valuable and important. We were never going to belong with them, so we simply quit trying. We exercised good manners and healthy respect, but we stopped focusing on the fact they would never accept us.

Instead, we found ways to use our time constructively doing things that enriched our marriage and careers. In the process, we made real friends and grew as individuals. Martha Washington once said, "I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances."

Our circumstances may be beyond our control, but we can control our attitude. And if we have a good attitude, we'll find someplace to belong.


Please share your tips for belonging in the comments!


  1. I have found the merit of good attitude to be the key when placed somewhere new. To be fair, I have not been tested in a very long time by moving to a new area as we have been in our home for over 40 years nor do I ever remember being in a situation of being ostracized. But I have moved in my working career, from branch to corprate and back to different branches. Once I move beyond the grouchiness because my commute is longer or I can no longer lunch with my best friend or whaterver, and start making an effort to find something to complement the new co-workers on, settling in becomes much easier. As your experiences show...it's what WE do that makes the difference. Thank you for a very insightful piece.
    Lu C

  2. My daughter in law sent this to me this morning. I live this way, most of the time. It was nice to see it in words.

    The most important thing that I have learned in my life is that there is only one thing over which I can exercise total and complete control – my attitude. And I know my attitude will control my health, happiness, successes, wealth, relationships, and what I get out of this one time trip called life. While I cannot control many of the things that happen to me, I can control how I react to those things: my reactions become my attitudes about my life. I know a positive attitude is the difference between a winner and a loser. Starting at this very moment I hearby choose to control my attitude.. Never again will I let other people, challenging experiences, problems, and difficult experiences to change my attitude. I will constantly remind myself that the more often I have a good attitude, the more often I have a good day.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!