Friday, September 20, 2019

Getting Home Safely

While visiting Athens, Greece some time ago, I decided to challenge myself to find the house our family lived in when I was a boy of 10-13 years old. It involved taking a train from downtown to the neighborhood of Kifissia, cutting across a large park, passing through the village, then winding my way around a maze of suburban streets. Arriving there from memory without a hitch, I set myself the additional challenge of locating the old American Club where I'd spent a lot of my childhood leisure time. This required a bit more trial and error, but I found that as well. Feeling good about myself, I elected to return to the train station via an alternative route and proceeded to get hopelessly lost.

There was no phone reception, so resorting to GPS was out of the question. I came across precious few fellow pedestrians out during the heat of the day, and I couldn't make myself understood to the ones I did solicit. I was too shy to knock on doors to ask directions. Of course, at one level I knew that I would find my way home. I would eventually find a place of business or wander out of the telephone dead zone, but there was a primal edge of panic there nevertheless, one that didn't go away until I found myself back in familiar territory.

It's unsettling to not know how to get home. As author and poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her book A Natural History of the Senses, "(R)oaming is one of the things humans love to do best -- but only if they can count on getting home safely." I think this is particularly true for young children and explains the undying popularity of such classic tales as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, the story of a boy who roams, has strange adventures, then returns to the security of home. It is knowing that we can get home that allows us to be bold, which is where much of the magic in life is found.

I'm thinking about this here at the beginning of the school year as preschoolers everywhere suffer from separation anxiety. Even as we assure them that mommy will come back, that we will take care of them, that they will return to their homes, they still don't quite believe it. They are in an unfamiliar place without phone reception. Our assurances might appeal to their rational minds, but until they are convinced that they will get home safely, their journey will be one fraught with anxiety. This is an ancient human fear, one that can only be assuaged through practice, through learning the "map" of how to get home.

It takes time for children gain this knowledge, longer for some than others. They create their "map" home through practice, familiarity, and routine. It's obviously vital that they know we adults can be trusted, that we love them, but that is only the beginning. We can provide comfort and predictability, but the difficult, frightening work of finding the way home is theirs to do.

This is important work. The knowledge that we know the way home, safely, is ultimately what allows us to feel powerful, confident, and bold in the world.

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