The Pleasure and the Pain of Wandering

Wandering, part 1

Do you ever have a fantasy of just going? Just go. Maybe alone, or maybe with your partner, just the two of you – a total get-away. You take with you no more than what can fit in a Pinto. (That was my version of the fantasy, which recurrently arose back in the days when there were Pintos.) Leave everything else behind and hit the road, never to return. Maybe you become a permanent nomad for the rest of your life, or maybe you just go until you feel like stopping and settle there. Who knows?

A variation on the fantasy might be just showing up at JFK with nothing but the clothes on your back, your passport, a credit card, a toothbrush, your journal, your favorite pen, and a battered paperback copy of The Portable Nietzsche. Pick any of the major airlines, saunter up to their ticket counter and say, “What’s your next international flight that I have time to make it to the gate for?” And you buy a one-way ticket for: Bangkok or Buenos Aires, Copenhagen or Kabul, Pretoria or Prague, Tokyo or Cairo, Kathmandu or Timbuktu. “No, I have no bags to check,” you say. And off you go. Wild blue yonder. Who knows when or if you’ll be back.

Fantasies of escape from life as you have known it are likely to arise when life feels stultifying. At the opposite end, life can feel too chaotic, overwhelming, unsettled, and unsafe. A yearning for rootedness rather than for rootlessness is then the stronger desire. The UN estimates that there are 22.5 million refugees worldwide. They long not for the romance of the open road, but for the comforts of stable hearth and home. Their need is not for adventure, but for security.

Human needs, yearnings and longings, when they can be met, tend to arise in a rhythm. A period of safety and security normally eventually leads to a desire for adventure, challenge, unpredictability, and new experience. On the other hand, too much adventure and risk over too long a period of time, and we just want to click our heals together and repeat, “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Sometimes the song in your heart is “On the Road Again.” Other times, it’s the Cheers theme song: you just want to be “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Of course, personality has a lot to do with it: some people need a lot of safety and security for quite a long period before they start to feel the beginning rumblings of a call to adventure. Other personalities are more open in general to new experience, less risk-averse: they’re the first ones to start getting antsy at home, and the last ones to tire of constant novelty and begin to feel an allure of stability.

Wandering – roving and rambling without any definite purpose or objective – can be a delight, a recreation, a creative exploration. Its purposelessness allows you to be open and receptive to whatever experience may come. It can be a time of learning, of expanding your frontiers, of exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life – boldly going where you have never gone before.

But wandering can also be hell, if you have no way to end it when you feel ready, if there is no home to return to when you’ve had enough adventuring. The world’s refugees know this all too well. The wandering that is exile, that is banishment from one’s homeland, is a life rendered meaningless because stripped from the social context that is the home of meaning.

In Genesis chapter 4, Cain, the tiller of soil, slew his younger brother, Abel, the keeper of sheep. As punishment, the Lord says to Cain:
"And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” (Gen 4: 11-14)
To be consigned to wander, to be uprooted from relationships, is a horrifying prospect. Relationships of care provide us with critical protection. To be stripped of social embeddedness is to be vulnerable to murder at any whim, as Cain complains. The Lord promises Cain protection against murder, but the punishment is still severe. Without a network of relationships, Cain is “away from the presence of the Lord.” He is condemned to a state bereft of all that makes life good. He is condemned to wander when all he wants is a home.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Wandering"
See also
Part 2: Stages on the Hero's Journey
Part 3: Every Departure from Routine...

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