Eesti Elu
Sense of belonging (2)
Archived Articles 05 Jun 2009  Eesti Elu
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A new page in the calendar is turned, and the flights of the swallows are increasing in number, to peak before month’s end. Their destination is not Capistrano; they are heading northeast, across the Atlantic, to Estonia.

The quintannual Song and Dance festivals are the main magnets this year, but seeing as these summer treks from North America are a regular occurrence a non-Estonian might wonder about the pull.

The reasons for living abroad are many and varied, by far the most common being forced dislocation due to war and the justified fear of Soviet occupation. Yet there have been others, especially during the last two decades, that have ventured abroad, willingly, in search of a life elsewhere. Whether aspirations and hopes have been realized or not, the call of the homeland remains strong when vacations are planned.

It would be superficial to suggest that the impetus is simply to visit familiar places, interact with kith and kin. After all, wise men warn that familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps that is why in the internet era Estonians have become master of the anonymous flame, roasting the chestnuts of others with venom and vitriol in web comments to articles and the views of others. Today a distinction is still made between Estonians born abroad and at home by quite a few of these pusillanimous posters. For some reason the motivations of those who have returned to the land of their ancestors to contribute to it are still questioned. Were it only open and overt, but this occurs cravenly, hiding behind pseudonyms.

Why do we return for visits or set up permanent residence? Why then do we make efforts, be it by simply singing or by running for local government or European Parliament? Or without making the trip but still financially offering support, say, for example, to the less fortunate children in Estonia?

It must be that difficult to define sense of belonging, the quality referred to last week by our president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, himself one of those who has rescinded the presumed advantages of foreign citizenship to make Estonia his home, her present and future his work.

“Having chosen Estonian citizenship, you have made a choice of greater significance than any right or activity that accompanies citizenship,” Ilves said on May 28 at the formal ceremony to present citizenship certificates at the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn. “This is self-definition or a choice of identity, more exactly a choice of a complementary or collateral identity.”

THI added the hope “that your identity as an Estonian citizen will bring you all joy and give you a sense of belonging that does not depend on nationality and does not differentiate us by native language.”

129 people received citizenship certificates at the ceremony, becoming members of a family, our Estonian state. These people were not necessarily to the isamaa born, but have fulfilled the language and other requirements. Ilves used the word kokkukuuluvustunne to define the sense of belonging that citizenship can bring. Also the reason why the swallows return to sing with countrymen and women under the massive Song Festival arch, dance on the sward of the Kalevi Stadium in Tallinn and kick up sand on the Pirita or Pärnu beaches with friends and relatives.

It is a complex feeling, that sense of belonging. One not always defined by the emotions experienced in June, a month marked in Estonia’s history by extremes, good and bad. Võidupüha, Victory Day, and Midsummer, Jaanipäev, mark the celebrations. June is also a month that witnessed mass deportations of Estonians wrested midnight from their ancestral lands by communist occupiers in 1941. Those who escaped Siberia and Red terror to make it to freedom in the West gathered for decades to express their longing for freedom, a restoration of independence.

Now that it has been returned we have fallen back into the patterns of Pearu and Andres, Tammsaare’s archetypical competitive Estonians, one always ready to pull the other down. Western-style marketing à la “Welcome to Estonia” is directed at the tourist dollar, not the collective past. Trying to be Western or European means often ignoring the shared experiences, the positive well from which to draw the sense of belonging.

Many do, of course. Consider the Scouts and Guides participating in the Tähemetsa Jamboree in Estonia in July. Or the large contingent of youngsters singing in the Toronto Estonian Schools choir travelling to the Song Festival. Add the older singers from other choirs, and after Suvihari there will likely hardly be any active Estonians in Southern Ontario.

But one guarantee: mindless and misguided snipers will be visiting websites to undermine achievements, belittle efforts, sneer at those attempting to carry on being Estonian on this side of the vast ocean. While the majority are to be ignored, the fact that they are granted a forum makes one wonder why.

For that sense of belonging is a rare thing: a quality not afforded to all. It is not accessible to those who fallen victim to the melting pot espoused by vapid Western culture that makes Friends a commodity.

There are significant associations between a strong sense of belonging and self-perceived general health. And healthy people contribute in return to their state and society. The role of culture is central to the constant reaffirmation of belonging. This is why the swallows return.

Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rumbler that “to be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.” The poet identified in 1750 not a private goal, but something pursued with an intimate body. Civil society expert Ryan Messmore of The Heritage Foundation sees Johnson’s words as expressing a fundamental human yearning for a sense of membership or belonging. Membership is too simple a concept, but purpose and participation, when added to the select membership that citizenship conveys, helps to limn this desire.

Being a contributor to a purposive community is fundamental to human nature – or used to be at least, before the Twitter and Facebook age. Let us return to the positive values marked by our ancestors that made us unique among other nations. Let us feel and act on our kokkukuuluvusetunne, focus on what we can achieve, rather than tear down. For in June 1941 that effort to destroy and divide a people was made, and it failed.
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