As I have followed the fate of now millions of people across the globe who have been “displaced” from their homes because of war and other factors, I have recently become interested in reflecting more deeply on what it means to be a "displaced person.” Technically “displaced persons” are defined as "groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters.” Many in this situation have crossed an internationally recognized border and are technically considered refugees as opposed to “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPs). The term has more specific technical definition in international declarations (see the United Nations Human Rights Commission description below).* This definition cannot begin, of course, to convey the suffering and deprivations of a “displaced person” who most often are extremely vulnerable women and children.
In a far less dramatic or traumatic approach, I am interested this evening in a general reflection about what it means for all of us to be currently “displaced” during this time of cultural shifting that leaves us unsettled and vulnerable, not so much as a physical displacement, but as a psycho-social dislocation as a result of the current upheaval of lives across our communities, nation and world. Like a “displaced person,” during these post-Covid and tumultuous times I sometimes feel like am no longer “at home” in the life that I had expected would provide me with stability and protection. It is true, of course, that in the course of our lives we can expect evolving challenges to our stability, and we are never fully secure, but there is something about the occurrence of such dynamic and rapid cultural shifts that constitutes a current personal and social sense of displacement that is effecting most all of us. We really don’t know what the “new normal” might be.
For some of us our sense of displacement is the result of our decisions to leave our jobs, or move into an extended care facility, or loosing our homes to foreclosure or jobs due to economic downsizing. Others have felt displaced by resentment about the sense that a provocative emphasis on racial and gender reckoning has felt like personal social and economic diminishment, while those who have suffered under years of exclusion are trying to define a new sense of respect and pride in their lives as they struggle to be more connected. For all of us change comes faster than we can adequately adapt, and our confidence is shaken by our cultural divides. And the danger during these times of displacement is that, in the in the words of poet William Butler Yeats, “the center does not hold.”**
All these changes and displacements are all part of the wider human story, of course. For those who know the story of Exodus, recall how the Israelites were displaced when they left the oppressions of Egypt only to be confronted with the vulnerability of adapting to the wilderness where they were forced, often reluctantly, to develop faith in God to help them to survive and to create an alternative ethical and cultural vision. And the most significant planetary shifts throughout human history have occurred during the axial ages of turbulent change not unlike our own today.
It has occurred to me that the obvious opposite of displacement is belonging. When we are adrift personally or culturally or catastrophically, our greatest longing is to be “back home.” There is deep in the human soul the need to belong, to be part of a tribe or group, to be part of the land, the earth, and to belong to it, and for it to “belong” to us. Many of us are fortunate to have a deep sense of belonging in our family, in our groups of friends, religious communities, social groups, or neighborhoods that support us with shared values and positive purpose. Still others find groups that meet their need to belong but are bonded primarily for protection and defense such as gangs or anti-social movements whose purposes may include violence and destruction. It is important to note that that these affiliations also provide their members a place of much needed belonging.
In other words, a “displaced person,” adrift from a place of belonging, will consciously or subconsciously seek out a status of belonging that provides an antidote to displacement, whether or not it is in their larger self interest. And it is fair - and challenging - to say that those of us who do have a secure place of belonging are called to try to offer a similar place for hospitality and care to those who are displaced. A major ethical precept to most all religions is the responsibility to welcome the stranger, the alien, those without a place of belonging. I will leave it to each of my readers to ask themselves what part of their lives welcomes the “displaced person,” and perhaps, in widening the circle to include the stranger and dislocated, we also may address some of our own sense of dislocation in these difficult times.
I want to close with a very small personal story that captures the best sense of what it means to belong. I recently came late to an outside picnic table gathering of my friends who were celebrating a much awaited opportunity to be together again after the long stretch of Covid’s communal restraints. As I walked up to the group someone said quite anonymously and spontaneously, “Here comes our Tom.” “Our” Tom. I belonged. And that comment also meant others in the group also belonged. The group was defined by a sense that each of us was “our” person who truly belonged.
*United Nations Human Rights Commission https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/sr-internally-displaced-persons/about-internally-displaced-persons
**The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)