It’s difficult to separate our ideas of home from specific places. When we think of home most of us think of a house. Maybe we grew up in it. Maybe we lived there only a while. Maybe we long to return. Maybe we live there still.
Some of us have a wider focus. Many of us recall, fondly or not, moments in our hometowns that shaped us. The very streets went into making us who we are. The memory of the light falling at dusk across the buildings downtown, across the fields or the face of a friend returns perennially to us in quiet moments. We go back whether we want to or not.
Sometimes people consider a whole region home. About fifteen years ago, I moved from Indiana, where I had always lived, to New England. The culture shock was real. Eventually, I got settled in, and as I did, I began to think not just of the couple of towns where I had previously lived as home, but nearly the whole of the Midwest.
Whether we think of home as a building, a town or a region, we don’t have it quite right. Yes, the connection between a sense of being at home and particular places is undeniable. Home is a place, but it isn’t just a place. It’s more.
Place is a necessary, but not a sufficient, ingredient of an approximate home. No home is uninformed by the concrete spaces in which it is built. But, what defines home for us is not just place, but the things that happen and the people we encounter there.
In short, an approximate home is not just a place, but a life or, more accurately, a way of life. A homeward life is a way of living marked by a particular set of values. At its heart is the effort to cultivate those qualities that lead to a sense of being in our place, being at home.
Not all values do this. Our culture trains us all to be anti-home. Home is the place where nothing ever happens, and when it does, it’s awful. Home exists mostly to be left for something better. Our culture stresses public acclimation, striving, the acquisition of more, putting ourselves, our desires at the center of everything.
The essence of home opposes all these. Home, instead, requires moderation, humility, privacy, modesty. It prizes rest more than striving, continuity over novelty. That sense of being as much at home as possible in the world is the reward for a life that stresses these virtues.
The home-ish sort of life values relationships too. After our personal character, relationships and their quality most define what it means to be at home. When those relationships are stable, warm, loving and pleasurable, we feel ourselves to be where we belong. In them, we detect the strongest hint of some other more permanent home. When they go wrong, the world offers us no solace.
Emphasizing the character and relationships we cultivate as central to making a home in the world, doesn’t diminish the importance of place. It enhances it. The visible and invisible aspects of our quest to make an approximate home inform one another. Neglect one and the other suffers. At the same time, we have to realize that by cherishing our character and the relationships we build with others we become servants, not slaves to the place where we live.
Prioritizing character and relationships focuses us on those aspects of the howeward life that are less susceptible to destruction by the unfortunate forces of the world. Stressing the intangible aspects of home rather than just place, in one sense, makes home portable. When we see that home is not just a place we live in, we can also more easily see that it is a place that lives in us.
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