Everyone is born somewhere. Well, today at least; that might change if we ever become a spacefaring species. But for the moment, each of us has a birthplace in some Earthly land. The majority of us live our whole lives in that land, vacations and business trips notwithstanding.
Some striking fiction has been written about persons transported away from everything they’ve known. Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the best-known examples of that kind of fiction. For all its flaws – most of them due to the author’s determination to be an iconoclast – it does portray some of the struggles a man would face after being torn from his homeland. Unfortunately, Valentine Michael Smith isn’t a good specimen for an in-depth study of such a thing. Shevek, from Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece The Dispossessed, serves better, despite the relatively compressed nature of his experiences on Urras, away from his birthland Anarres.
I haven’t tried my hand at the task. Until recently, I’ve preferred narrative environments with which I’m familiar. (Yes, even in the Spooner Federation novels.) But I find the subject fascinating for more than one reason.
There’s a word, anomie, which expresses a particular malaise: the sense of alienation deriving from purposelessness or rootlessness. The malady is more common today than ever before. I’ve read few assessments of the causes.
Might one of them be our unprecedented mobility?
I’m a New Yorker. I was born in the Bronx. I matured in Rockland County, which is just across a couple of bridges from the Big Apple. I’ve lived my entire adult life on Long Island. New York Metro, with all its beauties and drawbacks, is my place in the world.
But New York Metro is part of the United States. It shares a great deal with the rest of the country. Not everything, no; for one thing, it’s a much more hectic environment than most of the rest of the country. For another, it’s more crowded, and in certain ways more demanding. And on those occasions when I’ve been compelled to be away from New York Metro, I’ve felt a certain psychological distance from those around me. Not a hostility, mind you; just that I and those around me at those times weren’t quite aligned the same way.
I once had to spend six months away from Long Island on a contract engineering job. I never ceased to feel that distance, despite the best efforts of those I was working alongside and those who were guesting me to make me feel welcome. The sense of relief I felt upon returning to Long Island is indescribable. Long before I saw my own front door – even while my plane was still descending toward Kennedy Airport – I felt a profound sense of welcome and relief. I was home.
Home doesn’t have to be the best place on Earth. It just has to be yours.
For many today, home is word that lacks a firm referent. Oh, they have places to live. They’ve heaped up great mounds of possessions in those places. They know how to get there from just about anywhere else. But they don’t feel at home in the same way and to the same degree that I feel it.
For some, it’s about having got here too recently. We do have a lot of immigrants. Some of them are even here legally. But when one is “come here” rather than “from here,” as New Englanders traditionally style the distinction, it takes time and an effort of will to transfer one’s allegiance. Some immigrants never manage it.
Perhaps less time and effort are required of our internal migrants – the American-born who relocate from one state to another – but I’m sure some of each is still necessary. Some of them never manage it either. I’ve known people who’ve lived within a few miles of me for nearly forty years, but have never stopped thinking of themselves as Philadelphian, or Atlantan, or Angeleno. It comes out in their conversation, possibly without their knowledge.
Such persons emit a profound sense of not being at home. It must make life difficult.
I don’t think it’s about binding yourself to a place. I think it’s about deciding that you’re among your own. People you know and trust. People you don’t know, but you trust anyway – because they’ve been clustered around you for a long time, and thus in some extended sense are your own – more your own than the folks across the river or the folks on the other side of the mountain. You abstract your allegiance onto the locale, just for convenience of speech. But it’s the people of the locale, rather than its place on the map, that matter most.
The more we move around, whatever our reason for doing so, the harder it is to form and maintain such an allegiance. When your home district begins to fill up with persons from other places – especially places where the norms and behavior differ greatly from what you know – it’s harder still. You sense that you’re no longer securely among your own. You might start to feel unsafe, threatened by the “come heres,” even if that threat should never be actualized.
When I last wrote on this subject, I was concerned with international and intercontinental migrations that mix people who differ in several large ways: race, religion, culture, moral and ethical norms, standards for public conduct, and others. Such migrations have caused palpable, measurable harm. Many of the migrants don’t go to their destination locales from a desire to be there, but rather to batten upon the “from heres:” to become parasites on the locals’ prosperity and largesse. The destructive effects aren’t just legal or economic.
I’m the shallowest of “from heres:” a first-generation American, born of immigrant parents. Perhaps I’m not the right person to discourse wisely or feelingly on the importance of being among one’s own. But I know the feeling. It’s surged up and torpedoed my several impulses to relocate. And I think perhaps that I should consider myself fortunate that it did. My Gentle Readers are free to imagine otherwise. And now, for some thematic music: