Like others, I find it invigorating to get away. But I find that, for me, getting away is also a different way of coming home. I was reminded of this as I was getting away while reading this morning. Let me explain.
I’ll be going to England at the end of the month for a few days of professional development in South Yorkshire. I’ve been working hard with little time away from my professional practice except for the recent holiday season. So, I decided that I’d bookend the business purposes of my travel with a few days in London before and after. While in London, more specifically, Bloomsbury, I’ll very likely spend my time in used book stores, coffee shops, and my favorite tavern. All involving foot travel and taking the longer route to my destination.
Away? Yes, I’ll be away, but I’ll also be coming home in the way Marcus Aurelius (Stoic philosopher, 121-180 AD) might have conceived it. I quote at length here from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest. (Book Four, Meditations)
I believe that part of the getting away that I seek in my travel to England involves being a stranger in a strange land. The people I meet and engage with meet me for the first time with no presuppositions, and I meet them as I choose to relate to them at the time, unencumbered by any expectations. And beyond the structured social context of my professional activities, lay wonderful anonymity.
Being among people, many people, diverse peoples, there are no requirement to do much of anything beyond honoring the merest social norms in my social transactions. For me, there is “nowhere either more quiet or free” than that. Of course, I speak as an admittedly philosophically-oriented introvert. But I, like Marcus Aurelius and a later Scottish philosopher influenced by him, Adam Smith, do not spend my time away focused on myself or on self-interest. Sound paradoxical?
I find meaning in that which lies beyond me, that to which I relate as a part, a part who finds fulfillment in being a part of that something beyond me. Yes, I refer to something spiritual, but not simply spirit. It’s the spirit of embodied human kind, living with other species in a natural world that predates and preceded me and that will exist after I’m gone. I enjoy being the speck of humanity that I am and being related to so much more that is beautiful and good.
It is reuniting with that greater realm of spirit in my own quiet and peculiar ways that enables me to rejoin the whole of humanity and our busy, buzzing world with kindness, mindfulness, and a readiness to offer compassionate and practical care. Whatever virtue I bring to my work as the speck of humanity that I am, is greatly revitalized by coming home in this way – whether that involves a trip abroad or, what is more common, a brief respite and reading of poetry or philosophy.
For reading in this way is not a private intellectual act, not at all. It is for me a communion with others who have come before, many of whom in their own ways have also sought a connection to the whole. So, reading is dialogue for me, and I am pleased to play a quieter role of listening, processing, and gratefully receiving the thoughts and ideas that others share. What a wonder life is! That we minded creatures live short lives but connect across time and create history.