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We can go home again! Contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s article that declared “You Can’t Go Home Again,” I think it is not only possible to go home again but desirable. There was some truth in Wolfe’s lament. It is impossible to go back to family as we knew it, to a childhood already lived, or even a romantic love that ended. However, trips back home whether to some distant land or to our neighborhood can be very meaningful. If intentional, such trips can be fun, fulfilling, and rewarding.
Recently, I had an opportunity to take a road trip back to the community of my birth and upbringing. As I briefly share some of the highlights, I invite you to think about the possibilities of such a trip for you.
Growing up in the Deep South, I dreamed of becoming a politician. Thank goodness that dream did not come true. Regardless, I did find myself recently located across the street from the state capitol of Mississippi conducting a 2-day training for a group of young professionals who do the research and evaluation for the legislature.
I spent two days helping them discover the meaning and purpose in the work that they do. Looking in the face of these smart, young folks I was taken back to my beginnings, education, influences, and formation as a person. Some of those memories were good and some not so pleasant, but it was an opportunity to appreciate those formative experiences.
As I walked and drove around the old neighborhoods, I was struck with how tall the trees had grown and how the community had changed for the worst and the better. I couldn’t imagine having lived in the falling down structures that used to be my home. Feelings of sadness and joy filled my soul as I felt grateful for all that region had given me.
Numerous conversations with old friends and family reminded me of how connected I felt to those folks. It was wonderful to see how much each of us had grown but at the same time how much we had remained the same. Our talks seemed to pick up where we had left off. It was as if forty years simply melted away. Don’t get me wrong some of “them” looked really old. I could clearly see the many ways others had helped mold me in the early years.
Eric Erickson’s psychological theory posits that we all grow through developmental stages. As we learn to successfully hold in tension certain developmental tasks at each stage we add certain ego strengths. For example, in early childhood we are learning to trust our caregivers. If we have adequate trusting experiences we develop the ego strength of faith in others. As we move through life, we increase our ego strength from one stage to the next. A healthy development includes the capacity to trust ourselves and others, ability to take initiative, a clear sense of identity, a comfort with intimacy, the opportunity to teach our off-spring, and an experience of wisdom. Erickson observed that at each new stage of development, psychologically we would cycle back through earlier stages completing any unfinished business.
Our trips home or back to our roots, whether it is an occasional road trip or regular contact with those who helped form us, give us an opportunity to keep growing and developing. By telling and listening to stories, we are able to revisit some of those earlier years. Through that process we can mentally balance between the two extremes of integrity (that’s why I did that) and despair (there was no meaning in doing that at all).
It is difficult to understand the meaning and purpose of some events that occur when we are the middle of them. However, when we reflect after some time has lapsed with another who was in the same experience new perspectives might emerge. An “aha” awareness can occur that allows us to reframe or find some meaning in an experience that had previously been very negative. An example is the positive value that grew out of a broken heart in an early romantic relationship or a traumatic experience that motivated us to prove something to ourselves and or others.
Finally, going home on a regular basis provides an opportunity to grieve the many losses life affords. Psychologists say life experiences teach us that we must mourn losses at each stage of life in order to transition through to a better place. There is some truth to the old adage “out of sight out of mind”. When we look into the faces of those our age that are showing signs of age, we are forced to mourn the loss of our own youth. Visiting with a ninety-eight year old aunt who has mentally departed this world challenges us to face our own finitude. Viewing the changes in the places we grew up pushes us to let go and embrace our present circumstances. While these experiences do cause some sadness, it is by leaning into these feelings that we become free to live fully in the now.
We can go home again and we must if we are to continue our growth and development toward maturity. The holidays are a great time to take this journey. A few words of advice from one who has learned the hard way. Don’t talk too much about politics and religion. Try to create one-on-one conversations and keep it personal.
I will close with a quote from Thomas Wolfe that summarizes something of what happened on my recent trip. I hope you can soon experience something similar:
“Peace fell upon her spirit. Strong comfort and assurance bathed her whole being. Life was so solid and splendid, and so good.”
Rick Underwood is minister at Hempridge Baptist Church and a performance consultant and managing partner of the Leadership Management Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.