What It Takes to Leave

“No man can wander without a base.” – Bruce Chatwin

This year I quit my job, changed careers, and moved thousands of miles, seemingly dependent on little more than unfounded idealism and the structural integrity of my Honda Accord.  At first glance, this journey required an adventuresome spirit.  Upon closer examination, this may be less than true.

As a child in San Antonio, there was a creek running behind our house.  We spent hours chasing frogs, birds, and our dog Lucy.  I loved that place.  I remember bringing balloons home from the zoo and setting them free, watching them slowly float into the clear, blue sky for what seemed an eternity.

This was the first time I began to claw at the vast world.  Up to that point, my world consisted of our mountainous driveway, the healthy creek, and our looping cul-de-sac.

A few years later, we moved to Kingwood, where I spent most of my childhood.  I remember miserable weeding sessions amidst the sweltering Gulf Coast heat.  I remember sharing a room with my older brother and listening to Green Day and Bush into the wee hours of the night.  I remember late night walks with the dog, the humidity rising off the pavement as we stared at darkened house after darkened house.  We lamented that our town had nothing.  We had something, but didn’t realize it.  We had a loving, stable home.

Home is where all memories must travel.  It’s the place you journey back to with no worry of airfare or miles on the odometer.  The town may change, you may change, but that place’s magnetic hold on your imagination stands firm.  Indeed, if you hold still long enough, you can see the shadow of that mountainous drive that was really just a steady incline and you can hear the roar of the rushing river that was really just a dried-up creek bed.

“It didn’t matter where I traveled, what I saw, how desperate and lonely I might become out there passing through strange places, strange lands, because I could always return to the safety and sanctuary of home.” Kurt Caswell, In the Sun’s House

Thanks to supportive parents and a stable base, I have traveled freely.  Psychologists refer to this as secure attachment.

The first secure attachment an infant makes is to his or her mother.  Numerous studies have shown that the more secure a child’s attachment to its mother is, the more willing the child is to venture out and take risks.  A famous psychological experiment conducted by Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland in Minnesota, found that infants “who received the extra dose of early care were, later on, more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles.” (Tough,37) In other words, the more secure an environment you grow up in, the more equipped you are to leave it.

Not only does a secure home base make you more likely to venture out, it also gives you a continuing source of relief when times get tough.

At 9 pm on a cold March night, I was awoken by a phone call.  My little brother played “Green, green rocky road” for me, a song he had recently learned on the guitar.  For several months, I had been listening to the same soundtrack and suffering through the disillusionment of winter some 1,000 miles north.  That call, that song saved me.

Growing up, I never imagined feeling this way.  There was my older brother and I trading turns hurling each other against the iron support that held up our basketball hoop.  There was my little brother and I getting into a torrid fist fight.

But something incredible happens when you leave your family.  You realize how much you need and appreciate them, despite any maddening idiosyncrasies you identified along the way.  Within this realization, my brash, naive assumption that I could travel anywhere and build a fortress of self-reliance came crumbling down.  Reliance on family is what gave me the strength to make this journey.

Nowadays, it’s common to hear glorified tales of young adults giving up career and possessions to travel on the cheap.  The costs, in some cases, are low enough for nearly anyone to partake.  Why then does this movement seem overwhelmingly upper middle class?

“Any form of new organization or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganization.  No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former patterns will be succeeded by something better.” – Anthony Storr, Solitude, A Return to Self

This is not to say that all those that lie outside the upper middle class had difficult childhoods or that all upper middle class children had idyllic childhoods.  However, those belonging to lower socioeconomic brackets are more likely to have suffered through childhood adversity.  For these individuals, the answer may lay in childhood and crucial early attachments.  Perhaps those that have been scarred and bruised by turbulent childhoods have to make a larger leap of faith in order to trust a new culture.

The obvious counter argument is that these people have nothing to lose.  They haven’t found prosperity in their current situation, so why not make a change?  As discussed earlier, human instinct does not work this way.

Infants that are able to attach themselves to stuffed animals or other “transitional objects” are said to benefit from secure attachment to their mother.  They are comfortable connecting with other objects due to the confidence they have that their mother will not neglect them.  In the same way, those that lead blissful, peripatetic lives often do so as a result of secure attachments.  They are confident that their support system will be intact and waiting for them upon their triumphant return.

Less fortunate people have little reason to believe that their loved ones and their community will even be recognizable upon their return.

So next time you’re congratulating yourself for being an adventurous, atavistic wanderer just know that this ability likely exists due to the confidence gained from secure attachment to your family.

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With this in mind, instead of touting the perks of traveling and cultural immersion to poverty-stricken youth, perhaps we should first take time to assist them in the building of solid community bases.  Only then will they be free to wander and graze the meadows of varied cultural experience.

¹Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed.  Paul Tough, 2012. Print.

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