Finding and Building Belonging

If you’ve been following this column in the Fix for the past few months, I’ve been sharing some concepts and opinions around mentorship in the mountains. I wrote about learning how to lay the perfect skin track with my friend Grania, the Queen of the Selkirks (December 2021), I shared that mentorship often is inaccessible by those who need it most (January 2021), and last month I explored some risk management and decision making techniques for backcountry skiing. 

This month, I’d like to explore the concept of belonging.

“Belonging” is hard to define but you know it when you feel it. It’s this indescribable feeling of being welcome and comfortable. When we are born, we are literally connected to another human being, so it seems reasonable that making connections with other people basically sums up the human experience as we know it.

If you’ve read the aforementioned articles, you’ll notice that I’m basically dismissing the formal concept of mentorship because it can be out of reach for many folks. For example, if you have big mountain dreams and a day job, maybe you won’t have access to the same formal mentorship that a professional guide might be able to pursue. Does that mean you don’t deserve mentorship? Absolutely not! 

I’d love to take that dismantling one step further: belonging has entered the chat. 

Belonging is important to foster in all circumstances, from professional to personal interactions. 

When it comes to professional work, however, belonging can be a bit more complicated because it requires cues from leadership to ensure psychological safety to demonstrate vulnerability and ask for help. Finding a space where you feel comfortable and tapping into that feeling of belonging is probably nothing new to most folks in Fernie. You’re walking down the street or are at the grocery store and you see a friend and wave. It’s such a pleasure of small-town life to stop on the street and have a chat. 

When we shift this to the mountain scene, you might be a long-time local who knows exactly which run you’re skiing first on a powder day. Some experience you had in the past tells you “this is the way.” Belonging isn’t hard to grasp on that level, but when it comes to how we show up for other people, it’s a muscle we can learn to flex more and more. As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all ships.” 

According to researchers at Princeton, it’s proven that making connections with people where you first demonstrate warmth (that friendly wave and smile) and then competency (Hey, let me show my favourite spot to go first on a powder day!) we can literally make the world a better place. I know, this sounds crazy—but the researchers found that these shared experiences stop us from ‘othering’ people. Othering is defined as “to view or treat (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself.” The science shows that basically being nice to people and then sharing an [outdoor] experience with them can break down subconscious biases, political rifts, and even social feuds. Makes sense—the world would be better if everyone enjoyed a pow day!

So, let’s all contribute to some belonging. Demonstrate warmth and share some skill or technique with someone. If any small town is capable of changing the world, it’s definitely Fernie.