“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” - Soren Kierkegaard
Writing about health is not exactly like writing about fitness because health is deeper than fitness. Health means healing, flourishing, and being able to live a good and meaningful life. I like writing about fitness topics, but I’ve never been satisfied with stopping there. This was a tough post to write, in that I am assimilating several different ways of thinking about health into a story about home. Bear with me, because I am going to bring it together, but let’s talk about home.
Cormac McCarthy is a successful writer. His net worth is somewhere around $35 Million, thanks in part to movies like “The Road”, “No Country for Old Men” and “All the Pretty Horses” based on his books. The acclaimed McCarthy’s most critically prized writing though, comes to us in the little known “Blood Meridian”, a book which is often heralded as one of the best novels of the modern era.
McCarthy’s book may never be made into a movie because it is so deep, so accurate, and so real to life, that it offends all kinds of “sacred cows” which Hollywood would never touch, like the savage brutality of the oft-idealized Native American population. Perhaps McCarthy’s Catholic background, steeped in literary, historical, and theological struggle between good and evil and light and darkness, is what, like so many other great writers before him like Dante and Pascal, allowed him to penetrate so deeply into the human psyche, and grapple accurately with the existential struggles of mankind. The cinematic masses probably aren’t quite ready to grapple with these deep issues like McCarthy does on the page, though a much less complex but still brilliant work of his, “No Country for Old Men” was a highly awarded Oscar hit. Or perhaps the mainstream backers of corporate cinema can foresee the controversy on all sides a movie like Blood Meridian would bring.
In the book Judge Holden is the villain, a man set loose in the wild west of the 1850s in an unsettled America of ruthless violence perpetrated by all parties, native and white. Oddly enough, Judge Holden’s appearance is an almost pasty, indistinct, and translucent color. I’ve included a picture. What is McCarthy trying to tell us here? I won’t pretend to be a literary scholar, but imagine a man separated from any restraint, any connection to anyone, any past, any present, or any future. A man everywhere but nowhere. Imagine a man “free” to be “himself” with no moral or social restraints. Imagine a man without a home, without a family, without ultimate justice, free to act as he pleases in a wilderness of strangers. Imagine a savage brute like Judge Holden, on a villainous rampage to collect scalps, as a possible metaphor for us.
One of the ideals which this country is founded on from the “Enlightenment” philosophy of John Locke and others is that of the “free individual”. But what does it mean to really be free? Does it mean to be free of a home, a way of life, any commitment, or any responsibility or expectations? The things we hear about freedom can be misleading. Are the people we see all around us mindlessly glued to phones, video games, devices, TV, slot machines, and addicted to porn, debt, shopping, social media, drugs, work, fast, industrialized food, and so on really “free”? They have after all, chosen these things, as autonomous individuals. By the culture’s definition they are “free” but in reality, though they are rational, and they are instinctual, they aren’t really free. True they are free from traditional authority, but they are now ruled by other things. So what is happening to them, and to us?
These people, actually all of us in modern America, now have one major thing in common when it comes to our supposed freedom: radical personal responsibility to choose. We are not free and in this sense we never will be free, of choice. We have given up the old sources of meaning, in return for supposed “freedom” and “autonomy” and we now have the greatest burden of all: freedom to choose. This freedom can ultimately be self-defeating because it is in our best interests to have limitations or structure. Even worse, the kind of freedom brought about by modernity is actually freedom from reality itself. We might be free from reality by escaping to these representations of it, but the question becomes then, like Alice in Wonderland asked “Who in the World Am I?”
Every person must ultimately answer the question in life: “What kind of life should someone like me live?” If he doesn’t consciously answer it, he will become someone unconsciously and will have answered the question by the end of his life. We are all becoming someone. If to be “free” we mean to be able to give a law or rule to ourselves, which is the word autonomous really means, then we need to be involved in practices which provide the laws or rules by which we govern ourselves and become. Home, a quaint idea by modern standards, is a place and a practice where community resides and where we can become someone, a true individual.
Caught up in all this discussion is our desire to be free from home but paradoxically, home gives us the limits we need to truly become free. Man without a culture is a myth and a Man without a home is not a healthy man. Every man needs a home, a tribe, a community. All of us need to belong, because belonging makes demands and provides meaning, and asks something of us. Belonging asks for us to be something better, to be healthier, to be and to become, and to journey towards community.
In order to truly be free we have to come to grips with home. Home is where I come from. I shape my home, and my home shapes me. The only way we can ever be free of home is to be free of ourselves. The kind of freedom often parroted, and I am convinced this is an unconscious process happening to so many, is self-destructive because to truly become a “self”, a fully formed human being, we have to have a connection to the past, to the present, and to the future. To be here, we have to really be here- So simple, yet so profound! For one to go one a journey, or set sail on an adventure, there has to be a destination and a port to sail away from. Otherwise, we are just floating around at sea.
Ironically, the ideal of autonomy the way it is held up in our times, actually works against the practices- the meals, the institutions, the work, the games, and the rituals, personal, religious, or cultural, which truly do allow us to become powerful and to achieve genuine independence. The way this fake liberation plays out is that all ties are severed, all responsibilities and sources of teaching and authority are cast away, and all connection to place, to family, and to history is set aside in an autonomy that is advertised as liberating but is in reality a paradoxical trap of placelessness and formlessness. This type of liberated person, instead of being free, is not truly situated anywhere. Like Judge Holden, he is surreal and translucent, and ultimately even neurotic, paranoid, destructive, and self-destructive.
Here’s a simple example: let’s say someone wants to learn Judo. In order to learn, you have to show up at a certain time, at a certain place, with certain people, and do certain things. The dojo must become your home. The aspiring Judo player must submit himself to authority, to a tradition of teaching, to rituals, and to skilled practices which were developed throughout history. Otherwise, development of the player will never happen. Do you see the relationship between this process and the relationship between family, community, and home? If we never show up and participate, we can never truly be free because we are not really there to begin with. Judo is only a metaphor for “showing up” in a real place, at a real time, with real people, people who are imperfect just like us, but who can also help us become a powerful person one day.
What if, for example, all connections are cast aside and no “home” exists in which any of us show up to be formed? Or worse, what if the places we are showing up to be formed- the fast food restaurant, the liquor store, the shopping mall, the casino, the social media, the website, are failing to form a fully developed human being, but are rather re-enforcing a narrative of non-existence, an infantilism, or one in which our primal instincts are satiated by data-driven corporate monoliths, but we are unable to see through the malaise towards a life that has meaning, makes sense, and forms us into something better, a human being capable of virtue, meaning, and love.
Placelessness is an epidemic. Placelessness is an epidemic affecting many of us, and looking back I have intuitively felt this, participated in this, and experienced this for a very long time. But what is at the root of it? If I have to say, based on my own shortcomings and observations, placelessness is a lack of awareness, a lack of courage, and slothfulness. We are at times unwilling to love things, and to love people, to accept the world the way it is, with all the joy and grief that true community brings. We are unwilling to recognize the integrity of things, the integrity of other people, and the integrity and beauty of creation itself. And modernity makes this escape from reality, from home, so easy that we do it without recognizing it.
The philosopher RJ Snell, in his work “Acedia: The Noonday Demon” says we are ultimately unwilling to accept reality itself because it makes demands on us and the narcissistic “free” self, metaphorically represented by Judge Holden in “Blood Meridian”, will not accept limitations to his narcissism, his nothingness, his desire to subsume, consume, and destroy. So Judge Holden is translucent because he is a half-person, instead of a real one. Creation demands we change, demands our awareness and it demands we form ourselves to it and its nature. It demands we work, to sow and to reap the culture that results. So we would rather pretend it does not exist. The same with home. We would rather ignore home than deal with it. Maybe this is why so many of us run away or ignore home.
But going home can begin the process of healing. We can certainly understand the people who don’t want to revisit the sites of unfathomable traumas -the bridge in Selma, the cross of Golgatha, the memorial at Ground Zero, the childhood home of brutality and abuse, the gravesite, or the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But we can also admire the pilgrim who has the courage to go home and begin the process of healing. Who among us hasn’t had this feeling when we go home, to our old houses, our schools, playgrounds, churches, or our old neighborhoods?
The English language is unique in that is has words distinguishing between “house” and “home”. The two should be the same thing, but a house in our language and in our time doesn’t make a home. A person makes a home- in a certain time, a certain place, and with certain people- neighbors, friends, and family. I was born in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1977 and live in Atlanta, Georgia about 100 miles away. My parents were born in Alabama, and their parents, and their parents were born in this same area of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia. My descendants came to America, the Southeastern United States from England, Scotland, and Ireland in the 1840s. My last name, Godwin, is an ancient English word. But my home is in Chamblee, Georgia, where I work, I sleep, I worship, and I play, and in Scottsboro, Alabama where I was born, raised, and where my family lives. Like so many of us though, I have spent too much time in my life away from home, kind of here but kind of not here.
After World War II, the country’s economy exploded, its sense of religious and cultural identity slowly fractured, then imploded, and the idea of a “good” life changed from an admittedly imperfect one nonetheless focused on the common good, social cohesion, and community to one now focused almost exclusively on utility (acquisition of material goods). Things were not at all perfect then, but now we are now in an unhealthy balance in regards to solipsistic individualism.
A “good” life now is one in which “good” is defined almost exclusively in utilitarian terms- get “x” degree and possibly get “Y” job in “z” city. Afterwards, purchase “a, b, and c” and then possibly meet “d” and get married and have a family while then acquiring more of “a,b, and c”. If you follow the “rules”, and acquire these things you might be considered “successful” and you are “good”. Maybe. But according to who? And why? None of it makes any sense. The stress-fueled work weeks, the urban condescension of fly-over America which is often living by an altogether different code of the good life, the mental exhaustion, the bureaucratic manipulation and inter-gender competition. The caffeine, the mind-altering substances, and the drift into technological escape and human oblivion, and let’s be honest: the downright absurdity of it all.
The problem with too many of us, particularly my generation and younger, is that we don’t have a home. Home is reality and it’s too hard. Home is here, in this world, and is imperfect just like us. Home makes demands on us, asks something of us, and spurs us on to a healthy life. Home takes effort. It promotes patience, kindness, and understanding. Some people are fleeing dysfunctional homes, and for good reason. They need to leave home and start a new one. Sometimes, we may actually need to pack up and move. Some people are in a season of life where they need solitude, but over the long-term solitude is dangerous.
We saw this misunderstanding of home play out in England’s recent vote to leave the EU, where so many could not fathom the idea of a people who loved their land, their people, their tradition of government, and their way of life so much. There were well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned people on both sides of that debate but the truth remains: you can’t be everywhere at once. To be somewhere you have to be somewhere. Someone who is everywhere and everything to everyone doesn’t actually exist. He is at best nothing but a mindless global consumer which is exactly what many large and powerful forces want us to be.
We don’t all have to move back to where we were born, but if we want to be healthy, we need to have the courage to make a home right where we’re at. We need to put ourselves out there and risk getting hurt, risk real friendship, and real communion. We need friendships, we need neighbors, and we need family. We need to adopt, to extend, and to belong, to tap into a heroic ideal of what it means to extend beyond ourselves. If we get too tribal, too insular, of course we can start to lose our common humanity. But part of making a home is asking who we are, what we stand for, and if we are too abstract, too global, and too international, we drive by the stranded and don’t help, because we don’t know them. We forget about the kid down the street who doesn’t have a father. If we are never truly home, then we are never anywhere.
In 1900, just 1 in 20 households were made up of single people in the US, and now the number is 1/4. Suicide is increasing and the number of people who have no friends is increasing as well. Social isolation is at epidemic proportions like never before. We really are all strangers now, and are further and further isolating ourselves from one another- geographically, spiritually, and economically. Ironically, Americans of means spend millions of dollars per year to go places with a distinct culture- Italy, Greece, New Orleans, and Ireland. Why? Because when you go to Ireland, you’re in Ireland, and when you’re in Italy, you’re with Italians. You’re in their homeland, their home, their land.
One of the tragedies of life is that the only person who we will ever really know completely is ourselves. But we are capable of more than withdrawing deeper and deeper within ourselves. JRR Tolkien, renowned author of Lord of the Rings, though known for his epic adventure novels, was actually a homebody. He loved his family, his home, his neighborhood, his family, and his England. He liked to be at home. We tend to look down our noses at people like Tolkien now, someone who lives in the same place and who does the same thing their entire lives. Tolkien though, was a genius and the real joke is on us.
Because I’ve been there, I can tell you that what we’re doing is running or procrastinating or being lazy. Maybe not all of us are running, exactly, but we’re asleep. We’re kind of here, but kind of not. If we want a strong nation, a strong city, a strong neighborhood and community, if we want a thriving culture and human flourishing we need to come to terms with home and let it give us the “workout” we need. The work of tilling the ground, sowing the seed, and harvesting the benefits must be done. We can’t be like Judge Holden, slowly slipping into oblivion.
I recently ran into a mentally and physically disabled childhood acquaintance and friend in my hometown with his aging widow mother at a BBQ restaurant. I had not seen him in quite a while but when I went over at the restaurant to speak with him, he remembered the exact last time and place I had seen him and we had talked. This was obviously very touching to me that he remembered. I thought long and hard about this later, as it ate away at my conscience and I begin to ask myself, “when his mother dies, who will go and visit him?” “Who will stop by on Christmas, or on his birthday?” “If I say oh, someone else will, then no one might”.
I think you can see where this is going. He and I were born into a small town together, thrown together by God for some reason. But I have known him my whole life, from Sunday School when I was a child, to the times when he would ride around on his father’s ice cream truck and help pass out ice cream in the summer. I’ll just say this: that experience of seeing him was the culmination of a series of experiences that happened to me in which I felt God was trying to “show” me something bigger. This person, I knew, I should not forget.
If you take all of this fleeing to the current extreme, it can get self-destructive and absurd. It has gotten self-destructive and absurd. We have done away with the need for much personal interaction- at the store, at the bank, and even at home. Japan is at the forefront of 3-D pornographic dates. Pretty soon, we might not need each other for anything at all- for sex, for procreation, for conversation, for work, for worship, for food, for health care, or for anything. Then the question becomes- what in the world are we doing? And why? And who the hell are we?
As Mathew Crawford, UVA researcher and philosopher (and motorcycle repairman) writes in his new book “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual In An Age of Distraction”, our experiences in life are never just “our own” and reality itself is tied up in a social context. Doubling down on more and more individualism, isolation, and loneliness is both unrealistic and unhealthy. Becoming an individual is important, necessary even, in human health and development. Individualism though, must be found socially with others not solipsistically in our own heads. The grounds by which individuality really is possible are ironically only found within embedded communities of tradition, in practices and in cooperative roles.
The idea of a role and a place has become a bad word for many and there is an entire ideology aligned against it. It’s easier to run, to hide, to vent, to blame, to criticize, to drink, to clamor for cheap attention, to rage indignantly, or to just keep checking email. But we need to be at home in this world, this nation, this city, this neighborhood, and this house if we’re going to be as healthy as we should be, as healthy as we can be.
Home demands we really know ourselves and each other. Home is like a good workout because it demands we become fit for something bigger. Join a book club, a church, a gym, a club, or start one. Start a family, commit to a hobby, or pick up the phone and keep in touch. Find a mentor or be one. Meet your neighbors and make an effort. The road to home is the road less traveled but we should take it, because it’s the road to healing and thriving, and the road to health.
Suggested Reading: The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction, by Mathew Crawford and Acedia: Metaphysical Boredom in the Empire of Desire by RJ Snell and "Roads to Emmaus" Podcast, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Daimick.