Jake and Allison Summers are both from small towns in Idaho.
Did you ever see “Napoleon Dynamite?” That’s Allison’s hometown. When I met the Summers, she was in physician assistant school, and he was working in a lab extracting stem cells from rats. When Allison graduated, they moved away so Jake could go to medical school. Now finished with school, the Summers live in Boston, and I was able to visit them recently.
The night before I got to town, Jake called and asked if I was free in the evening. I replied that I would be and he said, "Great, I'll make reservations." He's not normally the kind of guy who goes places where you need reservations, but I didn't think too much about it. I was perfectly happy to see some old friends and wouldn't have felt put out if we were dining at the gas station.
But we weren't going to the gas station.
Jackets were required, as Allison had checked the dress code online. Jake thought his jeans with a jacket looked "snappy” — Allsion made him go change. Walking through Cambridge toward campus, we chatted about a bit we had seen on Jimmy Fallon. Napoleon Dynamite was a guest on the show — not the actor, but the character. The two of them used atlatls to launch spears at a faux mastodon. It was marginally funny, and strangely enough Jake and I both have experience with an atlatl.
We not only knew what that was, but we’d actually played with one as youths. In true Napoleon style, I attempted to one-up Jake, bragging that I also knew how to use a sling like David and Goliath — and it doesn’t even involve helicopter swinging of the stone over one's head. He retorted that he had no experience with actual slings but in his youth he would simply tie bailing twine around a rock, and then, he said, "I would huck that thing." Allison, walking a few steps behind us, dryly remarked that she doubts anyone wearing a sport jacket had previously said "huck that thing." She can't possibly be right.
Allison hesitated at the door and admitted to being a bit nervous. She looked at Jake with that sort of spousal distrust that comes with knowing someone too well. He walked right in, feigning confidence, but I could see it falter just a bit when there was no greeter inside the door — just a living room with a leather sofa and piano.
The sofa came complete with a gray-haired man wearing a bow tie. After looking nervously around we found a woman behind a counter talking on the phone. We waited for her to finish and explained we had reservations for three. She said the dining room was through those doors over there — and they could help us, over there.
Once we were seated, Allison again confided she didn't feel like she belonged there. She loved the place, wanted to be there, but explained she couldn't escape the idea that someone was going to come ask us to leave at any moment. Jake continued to keep his cool, but did admit he was wearing the first jacket he ever owned that didn't come with matching pants. I chuckled because I bought my first odd coat just two years ago, and being much older than him, he wins by at least two years. I acted like I belonged, which is amusing, at least to me — I was the only one who didn't really belong.
You see, they actually asked Jake for his card when we were seated. He had the card. A real one — with his picture on it. Jake is in fact a member of the Harvard Faculty Club. Card carrying. Bona fide. Legit. We were sitting at the table of the Harvard Faculty Club, them as members and me as their guest, but they didn't quite feel it. Not yet at least. I know that feeling; have felt it for most of my life.
I would feel it when I would get sent out to the farm as a kid, when I visited family in Wyoming, or when I was in priest quorum. I felt it the first year I tried out for football and then when I went away to college. I didn't think I belonged when I climbed into a boxing ring, nor when I sat in a class at Penn. I know that feeling of not belonging, of feeling like a fake. It never really matters if you are carrying the card or not, you just feel it.
There are a couple ways to fix this. First is learning to get over that feeling, or at least learning to ignore it. I decided some time ago, after countless rude rejections that things could get no worse — I might as well show up and assume if I don't belong someone will ask me to leave. That theory has, for the most part, held true. I assume I belong everywhere unless told otherwise.
Operating in this way has helped me gain entry to many interesting and fantastic places, but I must admit it has rarely if ever led to a lasting membership in anything or feeling of belonging. Boldness and belonging are not quite the same. I’m sure one can lead to another, but it amounts to taking the long way.
Second is the value of a friend. Most of us need a friend or a guide, and more often, could be one.
On a plane back to my own city, my own school, and my ward, I thought of all the realms where my belonging was without question: my job, my kid’s school and my church. I see all sorts of people in all those places. Normally I go about my business and assume they are doing the same.
Perhaps some of them are wearing their first odd jacket or waiting for someone to come and ask them to leave.