How I Learned to Stop Emotionally Couchsurfing and found home wherever I go

“You keep listening to those who seem to reject you. But they never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. They confess their poverty in the face of your needs and desires. They simply ask for your compassion. They do not say that you are bad, ugly, or despicable. They say only that you are asking for something they cannot give and that they need to get some distance from you to survive emotionally. The sadness is that you perceive their necessary withdrawal as a rejection of you instead of as a call to return home and discover there your true belovedness.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

“I’m going home.”

“I feel [or don’t feel] at home here.”

These are phrases we use in trying to establish our home as a particular house, or perhaps a city or country. Others of us may define home by the people we are with, as our families or friends. My default has for some time been “home is wherever my dogs are.” During one of our recent Community Sessions an Exosphere alumnus described feeling at home when he went back home and also feeling at home when he arrived back with us in Chile. This weaved into a series of people sharing about the nature of home, with some people describing how they were finally in a place where they felt they belonged and others agonizing over the lack of a physical place to call home.

As somebody who has been living “away from home” for 10 years, and in a “foreign” country for (as of June) 7 of those years, the concept of home has become complicated for me, not having felt at home in the city or region of my birth for at least half of my life, and yet not — until very recently — having felt at home in my adopted country. But it’s not that I feel at home in Chile — rather that I learned something deeply that I had previously only understood intellectually — that home is an intrinsic concept, not an extrinsic one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Self Reliance, explores this thought in slightly different language

“I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

Yesterday, contemplating these different thoughts, it struck me that we are all either at home or abroad in our hearts. We are either at home, finding the sustenance and nurture we need from within, or else we are out searching for it from other people, like spiritual beggars, asking if our neighbor or friend or partner can spare some emotional change.

Most of us, myself included, spend most of our lives as beggars. We search in vain for somebody or some place that will provide us that inner nourishment, and where we can rest, for home is a place of restfulness. Wearied from our searching and begging, we often settle for resting on somebody else’s sofa, somebody who will let us in for a time, sometimes out of pity, sometimes (usually) out of their own selfishness. Whether it is a friend or a romantic relationship, we try to make ourselves at home in somebody else’s home.

This is usually problematic as the other person is barely comfortable in their own home. Most people’s homes are too small for themselves, much less for another. So there is a negotiation process that ensues whereby we force ourselves into others’ homes until we overstay our welcome and they kick us out. Getting kicked out of somebody else’s home is a painful form of rejection that most people experience not once but many times throughout life. Sometimes this process of (r)ejection means an official severing of the relationship, and at other times it just means the erection of a barbed wire fence between the two people’s inner homes.

For our relationships to be generative and creative rather than taxing and deleterious, we must flee from our tendency to live in emotional beggardom and come home to ourselves, to see, accept, and appreciate our own inherent belovedness. We must adorn our homes with fine furnishings and attend to every detail so that we find an easy comfort when we are there, so that we lose the impulse to want to be somewhere else; we must make our homes places where we can be truly restful.

When our home lacks these comforts, we cannot rest — and our restlessness takes us abroad. Once we have ended this restlessness, though, we can even set to the work of enlarging our home, adding guest rooms and building a bigger table at which many can dine. These guests won’t — and can’t — stay forever, but life is cheerful and joyous when shared with others. The more work we do to make room for more guests, the more cheer and joy we will be able to create with them. But this enlarged house can also be a house of mourning, and grief — merely the other side of joy — is also best shared with others.

Our enlarged and well-appointed homes, then, can be houses of dancing and of mourning; houses built to withstand the elements in all seasons of life; to be a refuge for our guests, but ultimately and always for ourselves, so that we are able to avoid imposing our needs awkwardly on others. So that when the storms of life are raging, we can always go home — to our own home — and even if in such moments we are alone, we know we are safe from the winds and the rains alike.

We cannot build our homes with our hands, but rather only with our hearts, through the cumulative force of discernment, of knowing what should go where and how, in knowing which doors need locks and which rooms need windows, in accepting that our homes will always be in need of renovation and sometimes must be closed to the outside for repair.

The English word edify, which means “to uplift,” has its roots in the Latin word aedificare, which means “to build, construct.” More literally, the first part of the word comes from aedes, meaning “temple,” and the second part of the word, ficare means “-ify,” deriving from the verb facere, which is “to make.” So doing something edifying is literally temple-building. Language can be so beautiful.

Sometimes, even after coming home to ourselves, we may face periods of doubt or despair. We may mourn the departure of guests who had become beloved to us. We may think that our homes will never be the same with them gone. We may be tempted to shutter the windows of the rooms where they stayed and wait anxiously for their return — or remain in a permanent state of grief if we know that they never will.

It is in these moments that we must remember again that we built our home so we could find rest there.

Sometimes this reminder comes in the form of a brief visit from a new guest — one who may stay but for one dinner and a conversation late into the hours of the night and then depart forever, but whose visit reminds us that our home, when warm and welcoming, is a source of unlimited creative potential, that there is a hope — and that it is never lost.

We are all builders, and while we are first called to build our own homes, we must stand ready to help others’ build theirs, and especially to help them rebuild after disaster. This is the essence of all compassion, the outflowing of all real, edifying love.

The work is worth it, for the reward is that sweet and comforting refrain on which we can forever rely — Welcome Home.