If you've been following our work for the past couple of years, you've no doubt heard about the Oregon Humanities Wheel of Cogitation: a café table with a wooden-wheel top that is hand painted with topics of conversation such as, “Childhood book that changed you,” “Riveting image you'll never forget,” and “Change a moment in history.” We take the wheel with us to events and use it to engage people in conversation.
Spinning the wheel is a satisfying experience—the loud clack of the pointer against pegs is reminiscent of a playing card against the spokes of a child's bicycle wheel—but the discussions that follow are even more rewarding. One of the topics, “Neighborhood, city, country, planet: rank,” tends to give wheel spinners pause; they seem to mentally arrange then rearrange the order of the items, thinking about the ramifications of each hierarchy, about what their answer might reveal of their values and commitments.
To me, this topic isn't meant to inspire such a conundrum; there's no right or wrong answer. The point is more about recognizing that each of us belongs to networks of other people as vast as the global community or as small as the collection of neighbors on a block.
Thinking specifically of the slippery idea of nation, scholar Benedict Anderson calls these larger networks “imagined communities” because fellow members don't know one another, will never meet, “yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion.” He adds that these communities can also be thought of as imagined because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”
Seen in this way, belonging is an idea, an aspiration. But it is also an act: to belong. The essays in this issue of Oregon Humanities explore aspirations for and revelations about community, as well as acts of communion and comradeship inspired by inequalities within a larger community or by shared values and interests. These acts of belonging can be mighty and intentional, such as efforts to change policies affecting an oppressed or persecuted group, or they can be quiet and more subtle, such as the choices we make to commit to and ally with others, to accept that the things we have in common are important enough to bind us together.
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