At-Home in the Elsewhere

Illustration by Carlo Benini.
Illustration by Carlo Benini.

I am five years old, staring outside at the puddles of 47th Avenue after a summer thunderstorm. The rain penetrates our pine front door, moistening the wood around the small rectangular windows. The musty smell of the wood attracts me. I stand uncomfortably on the tips of my toes so my mouth reaches the wet wood. I bare my little teeth and chew. The smell and taste of the wood transport me to a still earlier time, dirt campsite on the way to the mountains, playing in the earth with my miniature tow truck, looking at the tall trees, chew, chew. I am whole, here and there, now and then, toe to toe. My mother interrupts and tells me not to chew the wood, I am leaving splinters on the window panes. Forty-eight years later, this remains one of the most abiding memories of my childhood “home.” Home before it became an anchored vessel, listing among the other wrecks along the tree-lined suburban avenue.

That memory is just before the school years, before the onset of the constant fights with my beleaguered older brother, before my mother’s anxiety became the icon of family worship, before I started to avert my gaze from the familiar world to the line where prairie sky meets wheat field, and through that seam of infinity to begin to dream, “what is out there for me?”

Another recurrent memory is now just a one-scene image: I am halfway across Main Street, walking with my cousin to Woolworths, where we plan to spend our weekly allowance. We are talking about the future in a make-believe 11-year-old way, when my cousin matter-of-factly states that he will stay in our hometown and work with his dad when school finishes. I remember the involuntary in-breath, the feeling that something as intangible and vulnerable as hope itself had just been fatally stabbed. And the panic, “You mean you won’t leave here?” It had not occurred to me that every 11-year-old wasn’t also planning his escape, the incremental steps that would take us relentlessly further away from “home.” Weren’t we all longing for that rite of passage through the departure gates to emerge in some new discontinuous reality of foreign-looking people and alien village squares? Shockingly, not.

How do these two memories coexist? What happened between five and 11 that my relationship with the world around me had shifted from that contented stupor with a mouthful of wood to the restless assumption that home is only the starting gate, and we are meant to bolt the moment independent living is viable?

If there is an answer to that question, I don’t know it. But I do know that the typical answers are not convincing. And I now know that I’m not the only one to suffer and savor the literal meaning of the cliché “there is no place like home.” Despite loving parents, the place never quite seduced me. Even as a child, 47th Avenue was a little less exotic than 48th, and I was forever on the lookout for other houses we might move to. Something in my being seemed to corrode the cozy totalizing universe called “home.” That five-year-old tiptoe reverie was of the other place, the campsite along the open road. I was at the front door looking away. At kindergarten, school, socially, I was accepted and popular, but close observation reveals how I would surreptitiously shimmy away to the fringe of any gathering. Belonging always implied too high a price: artifice, alienation, and suffocation.

Psychologists often assume there is a defect in the environment or in the self that favors departure (Grinberg & Grinberg, 1989.) This is migration as pathology, usually a hypothetical “attachment disorder.” Contemporary psychoanalytic culture offers a facile causal leap from family dynamics to adult way of being. There is no denying the significance of childhood experiences, but the whole matrix of voluntary migration cannot be coerced into some archeology of “developmental defect” or “inadequate origin.” If particular early experiences pushed one to leave home, we should see a discernible pattern, but no such simplistic pattern emerges amongst voluntary migrants. Many people, including siblings of migrants, have difficult family experiences but never consider leaving their home culture. In fact, many voluntary migrants continually strive for understanding from close relations who cannot comprehend their choice to leave. While early relationships are undoubtedly important, I would contend that our childhood relationships are as much expressions of our orientations toward the world as they are formative of them. Research participants (Madison, 2006) explicitly caution against a reductionistic psychoanalytic understanding of their motives and choices.

For 15 years, I have researched and written about “home” and “belonging” from the vantage point of “voluntary” migration (Madison, 2009). This research reveals some interesting alternative angles on human experience, and inverts some conventional assumptions of “home,” “belonging,” “homecoming,” etc. Below are some other inferences from the research.

Some individuals are plagued by a restless-seeking that cannot be soothed in the home environment. However, such sensitivities are uncommon. We are chiefly creatures of comfort, not seekers of truth. Yet, people who choose to leave their familiar cultures to live as foreigners eschew being comfortable or conventional in favor of standing in increasingly foreign and challenging situations, kicking against the sleep of complacency. Some voluntary migrants are motivated in part by experiencing the home culture as too homogeneous or provincial. These individuals experienced themselves, and were perceived as, “different” in their native culture, and this contributed to a feeling of not-belonging. Migrants who are motivated by a need to be unencumbered, independent, on a journey to realize one’s self potential, could be called “existential migrants.” The motive is not economic betterment or only “escape from,” but includes elements of the “hero’s journey” in Joseph Campbell’s words. The “call” to leave home may manifest in similar ways to the “call of conscience” that Heidegger describes below.

For existential migrants, the question of eventually returning “home” often arouses deep emotion. Indifference to the origin is not common. There is a deep longing for, or abhorrence of, the original world (or both). The idea of eventually returning home to settle seems to be as much a psychological and spiritual process as a geographical process of relocation. The longer one remains away from home, the less concrete seems the experience of home. For many, this process culminates in the person not really feeling at home anywhere in the world.

In terms of existential migration, the suggestion is that we are “not-at-home” not because we have been exiled from home, but rather because we have been exiled by home from the flow of ourselves. “Homecoming” from this view is not the return to a geographical and cultural origin, but a retreat from the superficial hominess of “home” back into the elusive mystery of the world. “Authentic homelessness” requires the awareness that humans are fundamentally “unheimlich.” The concept of existential migration clarifies the possibility that “home” in its conventional sense can constitute true exile from values such as authenticity, awareness, pursuing self-potential, freedom, and acknowledging the ineffability of existence. One’s orienting values determine which process is considered “exile” and which is “home.”

As you can see, the discussion is leading us into familiar territory in existential philosophy. According to the philosopher Glen Gray (1951), the mood of existentialism could be described as “a feeling of the homelessness of man.” The world we are thrown into cannot meet the claims of the human spirit. If we are sensitive to the human condition, we will not find a convincing refuge except as an “existential outcast.” Following Heidegger, Gray presents an evocative description of the existentialist’s state of being, arguably indistinguishable from the more profound implications of the individual exemplifying a process of existential migration:

When you feel [unheimlich]… you are seized with a nameless fear. You are out of your element, but more than that you have an intuition of abysses hidden from normal moods. These rare experiences of the uncanny… are revelatory of the innermost nature of reality. …We are filled with dread or anguish, a psychological state which has for the existentialists metaphysical origins… … we, human creatures, perceive dimly in the experience of the uncanny, that the world rests on nothing. It has no basis or ground.” (p. 116)

This, according to Heidegger, is why we plunge into trying to make ourselves at-home and secure. Thus the conformist, everyday activities in which human beings seek to give their lives some stable meaning reveal to Heidegger a flight motivated by the pre-ontological understanding each human being has of his or her ultimate ungroundedness (Dreyfus, 1991, p. 37).

According to Heidegger (1996), being-at-home is a retreat from, and therefore, just another form of, our not-being-at-home in the world, which is the more primordial condition. Angst fetches Dasein back from the tranquillized being-at-home, back to individuation as not-belonging in the absorption of the “world.” It is a strange inversion of lost and found in which we find ourselves most fully at the moment when the world sinks into insignificance, and we appear most lost in the eyes of the conventional home-world.

“What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the proper plight of dwelling as the plight? Yet as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness, it is a misery no longer. Rightly considered and kept well in mind, it is the sole summons that calls mortals into their dwelling.” (Heidegger, 1964, p. 363)

The self that calls is silenced in the mass that remain safe and secure, comfortable and lost, at home. So coming-to-be-at-home in the foreign may imply a coming to be found, which is at least a finding oneself in authentic relation with the unheimlich—a homecoming to no longer being lost yet never being-at-home.

In a series of lecture courses in Freiburg in 1941-2, Heidegger used Holderlin’s poetry to elaborate his ideas that estrangement, “confrontation with otherness and the alien,” allows a kind of self-discovery of one’s endowments. The self goes abroad not to “get lost in strangeness” but to “ready itself there for its own tasks” (c.f. Dallmayr, 1993, pp. 153-155). Heidegger refers to wanderers who have been far from home, in remote places, as being the ones capable of bringing home the message concerning the origins that have otherwise been forgotten. This source can only be pointed at poetically. According to Heidegger, what is most authentic for humanity is always what is out of the ordinary. Such sentiments clearly echo the attitudes and experiences of many of the existential migrants I have encountered over the years.

The migrating body becomes elaborated by each culture. It elaborates more options for moving, saying, thinking, being, comporting itself. It no longer fits into any one place. It has developed more intricately than any one culture—no one place can hold the interactions this body implies. Migration is a valid way of expanding one’s being. Unsettledness can be aspired to rather than pathologized. Our view of self and our concepts could be conceived as migratory rather than fixed, settled, defended. The existential psychotherapist (or phenomenological researcher) values the migration into the unfathomable, away from the known concepts and sustaining certainties of science or theory, at least clearing a path that leads a little further on, or a little further astray. We may feel the desire to insist on an explicit truth that is forever pinned down, but this human tendency to concretize is a ubiquitous obstacle to remaining open to phenomenological, experiential, process. Existential migration is one way to accept the challenge to try to meet existence on its own terms.

Dallmayr, F. (1993). The other Heidegger. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Dreyfus, H. L. (1991). Being-in-the-world. A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gray, G. J. (1951). The idea of death in existentialism. Journal of Philosophy, 48(5), 113-127.

Grinberg, L. & Grinberg, R. (1989). Migration and exile. London, UK: Yale University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1964). Basic Writings (2nd Ed. Rev.) (Ed. David Farrell Krell). New York, NY: Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and time. A translation of Sein und Zeit. (trans. Joan Stambaugh). Albany, NY: SUNY Press

Madison, G. (2006). Existential migration. Existential Analysis 17(2), 238-260.

Madison, G. (2009). The end of belonging: Untold stories of leaving home and the psychology of globalization. Illinois: Createspace.

— Greg Madison

Today’s guest contributor, Greg Madison, PhD, is an existential psychotherapist and psychologist, and senior visiting lecturer on various international post-graduate training faculties. He has written and edited books and articles on Existential Migration, Focusing-oriented therapy, Existential Therapy, and contemporary topics related to psychology and society. He is a Certifying Coordinator for the Focusing Institute and co-editor of Existential Analysis. Greg lives and works in Brighton and London, UK. His website is

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