Phillip Smith

Relationships and belonging

Reflections on turning 40


The night before my fortieth birthday I received one of the most profoundly moving gifts of all time. It was not a thing, an object, or a possession; it was something that money could not buy. It was a collection of memories – a virtual scrapbook, full of thoughtful words and photos long forgotten, gathered from friends old and new, close and far – and it reminded me that, more than anything else, the quality of my life is a reflection of the incredible people that I am surrounded by.

Flipping through that scrapbook took me back almost 30 years, to friends made in elementary school, high school, and the years that followed. In many ways, the story of my life could be charted by simply connecting the dots between these friendships and relationships. The childhood friends like Frank, the young-adult friends like Jonathan, the thirties friends like Melanie and the Marks. The friends that I get into trouble with, like Rein, and the friends that push me to be on top of my game, like Todd. So many great friends. And I am blessed that – in some way – I have each of these friends, and the whole rich fabric of friends they represent, still in my life to this day.

It is probably not easy to be my friend, I must admit: I am notorious for running away, staying out of the spotlight, and I’m not particularly great at staying in touch. I’m always ever-so busy, even though I yarn-on about being a slacker. I refuse to go down the paths that have any resemblance to the “traditional,” and as much as possible I refuse to “grow up.” I take a long view; I trust that our connection will continue for years to come, but perhaps with the shortcoming of letting too much time pass in between. I am imperfect and rely on your grace and forgiveness to maintain our bond.

As I closed the scrapbook that night, I was left with a powerful sense of belonging. My friends, my family, my spiritual and emotional partners, are the foundation from which I have built my life, the firm ground on which I continue to build it, and the shore in the distance that enables me to embark on each new journey without fear.

For me, it has been too easy to be reserved and guarded in relationships, because that is my natural disposition. But I realize now that it is better to be fearless: to dive into each relationship as I would dive off a cliff into a river, secure in the knowledge that there are no sharp rocks below, because this is friendship not an unknown body of water.

I have not found it easy to open my heart to new relationships, I must admit, this past year, and perhaps – more generally – in the years before. But this last few weeks has helped me to see, to understand, to believe, that a life rich with relationships, is a life lived without fear. That diving into new relationships fearlessly helps to grow a sense of belonging. And that a sense of belonging helps to uncover a path to self-actualization.

I may be a long, long way from self-actualization, but I am thankful that the path ahead is paved with incredible, inspiring, life-long, honest, caring, and fearless relationships.

To all of my friends that contributed to this incredible gift: thank you for being in my life, for being there for me again and gain, for being my rock.

To my dearest Tania, who so generously and bravely made these gifts possible: you are my inspiration. Thank you for living fearlessly with me.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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