There is a beautiful trail in the County Open Space just five minutes from our house. Roberto and I walk it regularly. It is beautiful in all seasons, wildflowers in May, cactus blooms in July, Juniper berries in September, a dusting of snow in December. And always rock formations around the next bend, voluminous clouds and views of far-off peaks as we ascend.
The other day we stopped at the map posted at the trailhead showing the different trails, wondering how many miles we walked. The legend showing the actual distance represented by an inch was hard to read. As we leaned over the map, pointing and talking, two middle-aged men arrived, outfitted with hiking poles, hats, water bottles, and great enthusiasm.
“Do you need some help?” asked one, smiling at us. “We’ve hiked here –”
I think he was probably going to say they had hiked the trails before and could tell us which ones were easier, which more challenging, or something like that. But I had interrupted with an urgent message. “Oh, we hike here all the time, for years, we know it well!” I was so eager to straighten him out, clarify that we belonged here, that I’m not even sure I said “thank you anyway,” or “have a nice hike.”
I rarely interrupt someone, and only if there is a very good reason, like “Be careful, there’s a car coming!” as someone steps into the street. This was certainly not that scenario. He was a perfectly nice person, a lover of the outdoors, eager to help fellow hikers in need. So why did I feel such urgency to defend myself as someone who belonged here? Why did I need to distinguish myself from someone I hadn’t seen before, making sure we all understood who belonged and who was just visiting?
I shared the story with a friend, who it turned out could relate. She had recently gone to the Urgent Care facility near her house in downtown Santa Fe. With a friendly bedside manner, the doctor had asked her where she was from. She snapped back, “I’ve lived about 5 blocks from here for the past 40 years!” He was apologetic, and explained that most of those who came to Urgent Care were visiting from out of town. Of course she understood, but like me she fumed nonetheless, indignant that he questioned her belonging.
It can also cut the other way – a stranger assuming you belong when you don’t. My son whose last name has German roots and who has a Nordic look, lived in Germany for four years. He was stopped frequently and asked by locals in German where the nearest post office was, did this bus go to Frankfurt, had he tried the new coffee shop around the corner. One of the first phrases he had to learn was “I am not German. I am not from here.” He had to clarify that he did not belong. He said he did not feel defensive about being mis-categorized. Rather, he felt guilty for disappointing and for not having the credentials to belong. I don’t know how the questioners felt, having mistaken a disguised Santa Fe native as one of them. Tricked? Embarrassed? Or just amused?
I suppose this deep need for clarity about who belongs and who doesn’t has roots in ancient times when being a member of a group or a tribe meant survival in challenging times. My example from the trail, above, is so trivial; the result was a rude lady and two confused good Samaritans. But it gave me insight about the human need to belong, and to defend oneself against the innocent newcomer who, in my case, didn’t recognize my right to belong.
Sadly, we don’t have to look far for examples today, at home and abroad.