Are We Ever at Home?

Pamela Druckerman’s recent NY Times op-ed, “An American Neurotic in Paris,” (Nov. 27, 2013) briefly describes the author’s sense of assimilating in a foreign land.  She would seem to be at home there after ten years. She has mastered French, lives comfortably, has French friends, and the idea of moving to America terrifies her children who are French-born. Still she claims: “No matter how familiar Paris becomes, something always reminds me that I don’t belong.”

This may be because she speaks with an accent, misses Thanksgiving,  or just doesn’t perfectly understand what’s being said: “Sometimes I yearn to be in a place where I don’t just know more or less what people are saying, but know exactly what they mean .” So it is difficult to ever feel at home in a place where you didn’t grow up.  Naturally she worries that she could ever feel at home in American again. But in the end she concludes that despite her multicultural experiences: “I’m American to the core.”

This raises questions about what it is to feel at home. Can we feel at home anywhere? Do we ever feel at home? Part of feeling at home has to do with what’s inside of us, but putting aside the internal and concentrating on the external—particularly the environmental, historical, social and cultural—can you feel at home?

Suppose you live in the same neighborhood or house of your birth. It seems then you should feel at home. But even then things change forcing you to adapt to the changing neighborhood, to persons living in the house, to your own physical condition, etc. Moving to a different city or different part of the country is more of a change, but assuming you live in a relatively homogenous culture—especially if they speak the same language—the change shouldn’t be too drastic. Of course its different living in Seattle as opposed to Texas (less concern in Seattle with having a big house or executing mentally handicapped teenagers). And living in Seattle is probably more similar to living in Europe than living in the American south.

But living where you have to speak a foreign language makes things really different. A good friend lived in Germany for many years and speaks fluent German, but told me that he still doesn’t understand German like he does English—a concern voiced by Ms. Druckerman too. So living where your communication skills are impaired would be a drastic change. Still many people have done just that and adapted, at least to some extent.

So maybe this feeling of not being at home reveals something deeper. Perhaps there is something about the human condition that impedes feeling at home. This seems strange though. The earth is our only home, we are well adapted to our ecosystem, and the thin blue line of our atmosphere separates us from an unimaginably cold, dark, vast, and inhospitable space. We should feel at home wherever we are on our planet.

But our minds always long for more; we are social beings who want deep connections; something always is amiss even in our best relationships. Perhaps this is what people are looking for in drugs or relationships with imaginary gods–beautiful relationships, blissful mental experiences.  They offer to fill the emptiness with … something.

But this asks for too much.  There are no perfect beings to have relationships with, only the imperfect ones here on earth. We should be content for the life and love we have here on this planet. And if others don’t speak the same language then we do the best we can. Yes, I think that’s better than whining about whatever is amiss in life. And that’s Ms. Druckerman’s conclusion too: “whether I stay or go, everything will be fine.” She has survived and adapted as best she could, as should we.

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