“Home” – like community, like identity, like so many of those important words- is an emotional idea with a lot of meanings. A home could be a house as easily as a city or a continent. It could be an M.O. that’s routine as much as a group of people who have infinite (and perhaps not always impressive) impressions of us.
I was home every day of winter break. It hasn’t changed much in the time I’ve been away at college: sunsets over snow-covered Rockies still distract rush-hour commuters, the stuffed dog I’ve had since I was three still inhabits my bed, and my brothers still eat strange combinations of food at strange hours of day. Perhaps it is because home hasn’t changed much, that makes me so aware that I have.
I don’t always feel “at home” when I’m at home anymore. OK, big deal, right? I’ve been back and forth between my Stanford and suburban Denver homes for 3+ years now. Feeling slightly out-of-place and cooped-up when home is normal, even expected. As a friend of mine wisely pointed out, the vexations of breaks can be welcome reminders that Stanford student life – where my schedule revolves around me, myself, my friends, my education, my priorities, my whatever – is not real life. The individualistic independence of my student lifestyle is mostly an illusion. Living with my family means living with an awareness that my agenda is not the agenda – there are four other people’s needs to consider.
During this winter break, I experienced the usual annoyances of brotherly messes and parental guilt-trips, and I think I handled them rather gracefully. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was not so adept at dealing with a more abstract and troubling set of irritations. Each time I get on a plane going back to Denver, I bring memories of the ideas, places and people I’ve encountered home with me. All have somehow expanded my understanding of the world, but I tend to focus on the encounters that teach me about problems and solutions – in other words, what’s wrong in the world and what to do about it.
As a result, I see problems that used to be invisible to me. Grocery shopping was never particularly ethically challenging until I learned about the damage many food systems inflict on people and the environment. I took our family’s health insurance for granted – if I even thought about it at all – until I interviewed uninsured people about their health care experiences last spring. I can no longer brush off the fact that officials in the church I’ve faithfully attended all my life discriminate against people based on sexual orientation. The “land of opportunity” seems like an ironic title in a country where people’s zip codes and skin colors can predict the length of their lives.
There’s only so much I can tell my family and friends about these ‘invisible’ problems. They like to hear my stories and thoughts, but talking about Jackson, the American 2 year-old who reached the lifetime limit on his health insurance plan, or Molefi, the Mosotho toddler whose head looked like it could break his neck, isn’t exactly festive conversation for a holiday party. Even when I am able to explain these tragedies, my words and pictures don’t communicate the reality and immediacy of the situation. My family will never meet Jackson or Molefi. They haven’t seen what I have seen, and they do not see the world in the way that I see it.
The inherent separateness and uniqueness of an individual’s perspective seems like an obvious concept. Of course other people see things differently than I do; they’re not me! However, the scale of that difference grows greater as our life experiences diverge. I think most people want to be able to share what’s important to them with their families, and it’s lonely when that isn’t possible. Complicating matters is the fact that most of us hold our loved ones – those people whom we associate with ourselves – to different expectations than strangers or acquaintances. We want to relate to them and feel proud of them. For example, I can dismiss talk radio callers’ xenophobic remarks by assuming they haven’t had the opportunity to learn from immigrants’ stories. It’s much more difficult to plead ignorance when friends or family members make similar comments: it’s pretentious (not to mention it’s often incorrect) to assume they just don’t understand, but assuming that they have the same information that I do seems just as unfair. Both cases create opportunities for disrespect and disappointment.
OK, so becoming increasingly different and experientially (or educationally) separated from home can be painful, complicated and full of head-splitting cognitive dissonance. So now what? Here are my thoughts so far:
- Clearly the Stanford bubble is far from the only bubble Stanford students inhabit. Speaking for myself, I partially inhabit the suburb, American, and Catholic bubbles, among others. It’s comfortable to live inside one bubble with other people who see the world through the same soapy membrane. This comfort is enticing, but I think maintaining such a bubble life takes an extraordinary amount of self-deception and self-absorption – especially for people like Stanford students who have been exposed to so many different people and ideas. I think it is important to resist the temptation to replace the comfort of old bubbles with new bubbles by different names. I hope to embrace the challenge of expanding, combining and living in between bubbles. The concept of “home” will look and feel different, but I think I’ll like renovated version better.
- As far as I know Stanford doesn’t have a Pensieve, so I’m going to have to keep explaining my memories the old-fashioned way. As much as it may seem that some people will never listen, I think our thoughts really do matter, especially to the people who matter to us. Studying abroad or working on a research project sounds pretty normal when we’re at Stanford – we should remind ourselves once in a while (but not too much!) that those are often kind of a big deal to people at home. Sharing is a humble endeavor; telling people what we’ve learned about the world doesn’t have to become a self-congratulatory or judgmental sermon. Being ambiguously and quietly upset by how much food my family wastes doesn’t change anything, except perhaps my mental health. Telling my family that a few weeks of nutritious food saved Molefi’s life, on the other hand, might be a first step to using our resources more wisely and justly. If you and I don’t share new understanding with our home communities, who will? We can help make the ‘invisible’ visible.
- I like to help fix problems, and I believe I have the ability – and often the responsibility – to do so. This is generally an empowering and motivating mindset, but taken to an extreme it can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. To maintain my ability to act, not to mention my sanity, I need to find many ways of reminding myself that the world around me is so much more than a series of problems to be solved. Yes, it is important to recognize what’s broken and work to fix it, but it is also important to appreciate what works, why it works, and what its purpose was in the first place. Our brains do a much better job at focusing on negative emotion, so if we want to give ourselves a more balanced picture of reality, we have to be more intentionally positive, hopeful and appreciative. Too much pessimism is just as naive as too much optimism, wouldn’t you say?
As you can surmise from this musing post, in between homes is where my heart is. I hope you will leave your thoughts as comments on the post and start some constructive conversations as a new year begins!
Rachel studies Human Biology with a concentration in community health policy. She is grateful to call many places home.