Coming home to ourselves
(1500 word article, first published in JUNO)
I am an old-school Romantic. At university I fell in love twice: first with my husband and then the European Romantics and American Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Schelling, Coleridge etc. Through their nearly 200 year old words I discovered a vision of the future so fresh, so relevant that it could have been written yesterday: a belief in the transformation of society, of self-reliance, on the importance of spirituality, of the wonder of the human experience and natural world. ‘Him the past instructs, him the future invites’ wrote Emerson in 1837 – “mankind must go backwards to achieve inner unity before he can progress further”. This I believe is key to any transformation. Not a top-down political manifesto, not a one size fits all global solution, there could never be one. The answers we will find will be different. It is a modern western myth to believe in a universal panacea. To find the solutions to how to live, we must first return to our roots: our human roots, our ecological roots and our ancestral roots. Solutions less deeply based will be merely rooted in reaction, denial or rejection. We have run away from home and lost the keys along the way. I invite you to come home…
We have been taught that in leaving home we find our independence. Maybe so, and maybe not. We have become a rootless, isolated society of individuals wandering from relationship to relationship, chasing high paying jobs across the globe in a society serviced by professionals. In returning home we recover the true meaning of eikos, the Greek word which forms the root of both economy and ecosphere in English. These strands have been separated for too long in our culture, alienating the economy from the environment by removing both from the domestic sphere. We begin to notice that once we focus on our microcosm (our individual homes) we become more aware of our macrocosm (the Earth as our home). Back and forth the awareness of one naturally infiltrates our awareness, sense of responsibility and deepening commitment and love for the other. People are beginning to recognise this through deep reflection. Gradually more and more are turning away from institutions, with their anonymity and lack of human scale, and returning home. So many of the movements we see emerging now are offshoots of the same desire: a desire to come home to ourselves, our roots, our families and communities, to imbue the basic act of living with meaning and depth. Supporting local producers, growing organic food, energy self-sufficiency, voluntary simplicity, home birth, home education, self-employment, self-building, all these and more are ways of coming home.
With this people are (re)discovering…
Interdependency, family, rootedness, community, simplicity, self-knowledge, involvement, exploring and creating, self-sufficiency, self-empowerment….
This is what I believe deep human fulfilment is based on. This is the well-spring from which we draw our joy and comfort. This should be the yardstick to judge any social change by, rather than material possessions or financial “security”. If we are rooted in ourselves, in our families, in the world and in the ever-changing cycles of nature then we are truly rich.
Homes are status symbols in our present culture. We pay them lip service as being the heart of family life, but this is not the reality for many. All the major events of our life: birth, marriage celebration, illness, death, food production, learning and work used to take place at home. Now they are looked after in institutional settings, saving us the bother of doing them ourselves; we hand ourselves over to the experts in professional surroundings. What was previously a place built with our own hands with local materials, according to local custom, with the help of the family and community is now constructed by contractors. We pay with money for what we used to do ourselves. When we commute for our shopping, our services, our work and schools, communities become shells, places where people sleep and pass through, but not where they live out the fullness of their lives. We no longer have communities, but networks. As Gatto observes in Dumbing us Down “Networks [rather than communities] do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is they cannot.”
Through institutions we have created taboos, great fears of birth, death, even learning, as these activities become hidden away, no longer a part of daily family life. They become great mysteries which we are no longer initiated in and so we hand them over to the experts. Institutions have taken over so many of the roles previously served in our homes. Modernity has given us hospitals, offices, schools, nursing homes and orphanages. They play the same role, but without the depth of human connection that we receive at home.
We cannot change society from the outside, we cannot force others to change. Our institutions and culture are the way they are because of what we believe about the world. We live what we believe. We believe we are vulnerable and need protection and so we have armies to save our bodies, churches to save our souls and insurance companies to save us from fire and theft. We believe we are what we have, so we accumulate more and more money, possessions, diplomas. We believe that we are separate so we have ghettos and classes and the chosen few in all areas of our lives. We believe that there is not enough, and so we will fight tooth and claw for what we deserve. We believe that education can be made compulsory. None of this will or can change until we, the people who create and support this system with our energy, change. There is no other way: anything else is superficial tinkering. When we give our energy (be it time, money, creativity, thought or in any other form) we give our support to its existence. We currently expend vast amounts of energy racing about serving and fighting the needs of others: commuting to jobs, children to schools, endlessly travelling, exhaustedly chasing our own tails in the rat race. To change anything seems impossible, just getting through the days is hard enough. We are at the beginning of an energy crisis in more ways than one.
Now, what if we were to conserve this energy and focus it on what really matters to us? What would this be? For most it would be their homes, families, friends, communities and local environments. If each of us were to look after our own patch, not out of fear as we currently do, but out of love, honour and gratitude. Not for us to worry about the rest of the world: not save the children, but our children; not condemn the hoodies but engage with the teens in our village; not refer to the problem of the elderly but our parents. We need to start not with economics nor policies, but real people on a human scale, working “as if people mattered”. As John Taylor Gatto says: “Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave or Marty – a community will call its [homeless] by their names. It makes a difference.” Then real progress might happen. This progress would deeply rooted in caring and compassion for real people, by real people. With the political and financial pressure and “the ills of bigness” removed, real reform for institutions might be possible. Less energy will be needed because we are not racing around all the time, we will be locally based and responsible for ourselves rather than the responsibility of the state. Earning less and spending less, our lives will not be dictated to such an extent by the vagaries of the global economy. Then we will have enough time to breathe, and to see perhaps a little more clearly where our futures lie and how to move forward. When we withdraw our energy, take back our power then we are free to choose how to use it creatively. By living Gandhi’s motto, “be the change you want to see in the world”, we can make our contribution and pave the way for others to follow. More recently Gregg Braden wrote that each individual who lives change, however small, “becomes a living bridge – both the pioneer and midwife – for every other person with the courage to choose the same path. Each time someone makes the same choice, it’s a little easier because another person did it first.” By living an example we shine a light for those who might fear breaking out of their old ways of living, but if we have no other effect than doing no harm to ourselves and those we are close to we have done well. The biggest step we can take is the smallest one that we think impossible.
Coming home might feel traumatic or mundane. Whichever it shows us the best and worst of ourselves and others. Coming home means no more running, nowhere to hide. It is a letting down of pretence and illusion. Not every community or home of origin is a haven or nurturing place. But then we are free to make communities of intention which will nurture and support us. Families, whether consciously formed composites or blood relations show us in miniature the struggles of human interaction and diversity. Home might seem a utopian concept, but it is the crucible of human interaction, a literal and metaphorical shelter from the storm, amongst people who are, for better or worse, our people. Families are a common bond between all cultures and faiths, the basic currency that opens out to embrace the world as we are, rather than manipulating us to drop our differences for the pretence of homogeneity which a nation state requires. If we do not start from the bottom up, from our beginnings, to build a strong foundation for a brighter eternal now, where then shall we start?