“There lies the longing to know and be known by another fully and humanly, and that beneath that there lies a longing, closer to the heart of the matter still, which is the longing to be at long last where you fully belong.” — Frederick Buechner, “The Longing for Home”
In his book “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” priest and teacher Richard Rohr writes that many people experience an immense father hunger, a “huge, aching hole inside that is never really filled.” A hole left by the absence of a perfect and unconditional love, a love that is safe and signals acceptance and, ultimately, Belonging. Rohr teaches that the lack of such love creates “the single most prevalent absence in the human soul.” Prevalent, he notes, and one of the most painful: “The pain is quiet, hidden, denied, and takes many shapes and forms that sons cannot even grasp— or care to grasp.”
Sons, yes, but daughters as well. For we cannot be ourselves, none of us can be our own person, none of us can know and answer our own longing to belong, until and unless we have been someone else’s little child. Loved, made safe, and knowing the sights, smells, and senses of unquestioned Belonging by a parents’ never-extinguished regard, we become who we were meant to become.
I’m haunted by that phrase “father hunger.” It’s the metaphor of hunger that strikes me most deeply, resonantly. I know that hunger as an “elder hunger,” the wish to be embraced by the wisdom of ancestors and, ultimately, reassured of the steadiness and truth of the path before me. I bear that hunger myself. I have seen it in others. When I think of those with whom I’ve worked as a coach, those who’ve struggled to lead well, to take their seats as the adult leaders they were born to be, I think of the absences in their lives, and I hear the wails of Buddhist hungry ghosts.
According to folklore, hungry ghosts are wraithlike creatures reincarnated after a previous life of harmful desire, greed, anger, and ignorance. They are ghosts—not ancestors—because they remain unsettled, unreconciled, un-reunited with the perfect love they sought as children. The resulting hunger is insatiable; there’s an aching hole in their hearts created by the absence of love, safety, and Belonging.
Hungry ghost leaders, then, are bred in the negative space left by absent elders. Absent Belonging, we ourselves become ghosts.
Hungry ghost leaders damage all they lead. As hungry ghosts with power move through the world, they leave unsteady, broken, and groundless hearts in their wake. Just as we cannot be our own person until we become, in Rohr’s words, someone else’s little child, leaders who hunger for elders can never create systems of Belonging until they know to whom, and to where, they belong.
Those who hold power cannot create systemic Belonging until and unless they are willing to reunite with their past and the dismembered and unremembered parts of themselves and their lineage. Reunion with lineage, then, becomes the pathway for not only filling the holes left by absent elders, but how those of us with the privilege of power, those of us who are leaders--regardless of our employment status—may create the conditions where all may belong and their longing that lies so close to the heart may be finally met.
Adapted excerpt from “Reunion: Leadership and the Longing to Belong” (HarperBusiness, November 2023) Jerry Colonna is the CEO and co-founder of the executive coaching firm Reboot.io. A highly sought-after coach and speaker, he is also the author of “Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up.” For more than twenty years, he has used his experiences as a CEO, investor, journalist, college professor, and, lastly, coach to help people lead with humanity, resilience, and equanimity. He is astounded by the fact that he lives on a farm outside of Boulder, near the foothills of the Rockies and far from the streets of Brooklyn, where he was born and raised. He is the father of three amazing humans, each of whom cares deeply about the love, safety, and belonging of others.