Friday, January 4, 2013

At home

One of my sister’s friends, a junior at MIT, during the Christmas break told me she enjoyed Boston fine, but it just wasn’t for her and she would pursue post-graduate studies in Kentucky or Texas where she felt more at home. The sentiment is indistinguishable from one I held as recently as last summer, with Maryland substituting for Boston.

What a valuable insight at 20 years old! The question of home plagued me at that age, too, but I reached a different conclusion. I resolved I would make home wherever I needed it to be. While part of it was a rationalization of necessity (I had to leave home to find work), I mostly based the decision on strength of will and character that I hadn’t developed yet. For me at the time, it was the wrong choice. I lost almost 5 years to that mistake.

“We can only become what we truly are by acknowledging that we do not exist by, from, and for ourselves. Our lives are always rooted in a natural and cultural community, so that to cut ourselves off from these roots, whether that be in the name of progress or human liberation, is to ensure the eventual withering and then death of life.” –Norman Wirzba

Liberation from the trappings of place offers the illusion of limitless possibilities. But the lack of social structures you found so stifling back home provides little direction on what you should and shouldn’t do with yourself. Everything is viewed through the lens of the self, and most lack the discipline to create something virtuous and worthy from scratch. “Self-actualization” degrades to selfish action, sacrificing spiritual health for hedonic pleasure.

Two movies released over Christmas break delve deeply into people’s need for home. The first is The Hobbit. After 2½ long hours, Bilbo’s motivation, his thirst for adventure, has waned. But he finds a new reason to carry on with Gandalf and the dwarves on their journey:

I know you doubt me. I know you always have. And you’re right. I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that’s where I belong. That’s home. And that’s why I came ’cause you don’t have one...a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back, if I can.

It’s not revenge that motivates the dwarves, nor the riches Smaug hoardes, but the place that dwells deepest in their hearts: home.

The other is Jack Reacher. The eponymous hero points to the lit windows framing office workers in a building at dusk. He contrasts the terrible “rootedness” of their lives—including, but not limited to, debt and disillusion—with his own rootless existence. How many of them, he asks rhetorically, would trade their mistakes for a life like his? A life of long bus rides, cheap motels, and errant wandering.

It was a powerful and unexpected critique of civilized man. But it’s a critique only a romantic individualist like Reacher, a completely self-sufficient man—in other words, an impossible man—can make. We’re reminded how far and tragically short of life he comes when he passes up a good thing to go on the run again.

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