“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” “Home is where the heart is.” These well-known expressions indicate that home is somewhere that is both desirable and that exists in the mind’s eye as much as in a particular physical location. Across cultures and over the centuries people of varied means have made homes for themselves and for those they care about. Humans have clearly evolved to be home builders, homemakers, and home-nesters. Dwellings that are recognizable as homes have been found everywhere that archaeologists and anthropologists have looked, representing every era of history and prehistory.
Home has always been a gathering place, shelter, and sanctuary, providing escape from the busyness and intrusiveness of the world. Much thought about, treasured, and longed for as an anchor of our existence, home has been the subject of abundant written works and other cultural products. We might reasonably suppose, therefore, that home is a readily understood concept and source of universally positive feelings. On closer investigation, however, neither of these assumptions is found to be true. The concept of home is constructed differently by different languages; dwellings are built and lived in very differently by diverse groups; and many individuals have negative or mixed emotions in regard to their experiences of home life. To embrace all of the nuances of meaning, outlook, lifestyle, and feeling that attach to home is a daunting task, but it greatly enriches our perspective on the world.
For many, home is (or was) a loving, supportive environment in which to grow up and discover oneself. Most people will have more than one home in a lifetime, and if the original one was unhappy, there is always the opportunity to do better when creating a new home. This may not as easy as it sounds for those whose memory of home is of an oppressive or abusive situation from which escape is (or was) a desperate imperative. But even when it is a peaceful, loving environment, home is, for all of us, a political sphere wherein we must negotiate rights and privileges, make compromises, and seek empowerment through self-affirmation.
As an ideal that exists in the imagination, and in dreams and wish fulfilments, home carries many and varied symbolic meanings embedded in the physical design of houses and projected onto them by the belief systems within which our lives play out. The landscape, geopolitical location, the people who live with us, and material possessions with which we furnish our home space are essential aspects of the place where we dwell. Complex interactions with all of these elements give definition to home as we see it. And as we define home, we also define ourselves in relation to it.
In recent times, home has become a more problematic notion, not only because of everyday encounters with our homeless fellow citizens, but also because of the great increase in immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and victims of natural disasters in many parts of the world. Given the strong meanings and emotional associations that home has for us, those who have lost their homes and the things they most valued, or who have never had a proper home in the first place, face psychological impacts and identity crises of massive proportions. Being without a home is devastating on personal, social, and many other levels. The issues raised by homelessness exist on a world scale, and will be aggravated by climate change and rising populations. In the end, they can only be dealt with through united effort driven by compassion and dedication.
On the hopeful side of things, many immigrants have been welcomed into new countries for some time, and have made successful and rewarding lives there for themselves, as well as broadening the experience and culture of their adopted homelands. Living in the space age and the age of greater environmental awareness, we are also collectively making the first steps toward appreciating the Earth we share as our ultimate home, and as the place above all that we need to respect and protect. Thinking about home takes us into our inner selves, to be sure, but it also encourages us to look at things in their totality.
Why is home so important to us, then? Because for better or worse, by presence or absence, it is a crucial point of reference—in memory, feeling, and imagination—for inventing the story of ourselves, our life-narrative, for understanding our place in time. But it is also a vital link through which we connect with others and with the world and the universe at large.
Featured image credit: Home building residence by image4you. Public Domain via Pixabay.