I know a lot of people are struggling with self-isolation, but I must confess, this has been a wonderful time of growth for me.
Generally people think of staying put as boring and mundane, and they fantasise about hitting the road (or the airport) and leaving everything behind for a life of travel. They equate the lack of responsibility to freedom, and they think their friends who travel all the time are “living the dream.”
But I have lived that dream.
By the age of nine I had already lived in nine cities/towns. I have lived in South Africa, Australia, the UK and India. I went to a summer school in New York City when I was 21, I did a student exchange program in China when I was 14, and I have holidayed in goodness knows how many other countries, including Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and most of western Europe.
I know travel well.
Travel and ‘wanderlust’ are terms that are usually used with overwhelmingly positive connotations. But, as the Christian writer Ethan Renoe points out, the Bible only ever refers to ‘wandering’ as a curse, and home as a blessing.
Of course there are benefits to expanding your horizons and being exposed to other cultures. If you have never traveled in your life, you should do it at least once. But when it comes to the aimless nomadic existence, there is a dark side behind all the social media posts that people don’t see, and I would like to address some of them here.
First, I am always broke. This one is pretty self explanatory. I know they say that travel “makes you richer” culturally, and there is a point to this, but let’s be real. It also makes you poorer. Not just because flights are expensive but because you make less headway in your career and are less likely to be considered for promotions and pay rises if you are constantly quitting or taking more unpaid leave to go globe trotting again.
Second, I often make up small lies or deliberately leave out certain facts in order to maintain this image of “living the dream.” I became most aware of how much I do this by default a few years ago, when an old school friend messaged me on social media to say how much she loved my photographs, how she’d been following me for years, and that she aspired to hopefully be able to live my amazing life one-day. I was living in India at the time. What she did not know was that I had been sexually assaulted a week before by a police officer when I was on a train. Nobody online knew that I was having multiple panic attacks a day or that I ended up having severe insomnia which lasted over five years. I was in the darkest place I had ever been, and yet I was constantly receiving messages from people saying that they wanted to be me.
Third, and perhaps the most important of them all: I struggle to maintain relationships. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that relationships – first with God and second with other people – are the most important things to cultivate during your life on earth. I am really really really bad at this. When I was a small child we moved city every six months, so I was always preparing to say goodbye. I’ve now been a Christian for 21 years and my biggest struggle is observe Jesus’ basic command to love people. I view them as disposable. I am good at small talk, but because I have met so many different people all over the world, I am too emotionally exhausted to “let them in.” People often think they have a meaningful friendship with me, but it is rarely felt on my side. If I am completely honest, I can count on one hand how many friends I have who don’t make me feel numb.
It is often remarked that third-culture kids understand the “heaven is our home” thing better than anyone else because we don’t have anywhere on earth that we consider to be home. I think this is a tragedy, not a badge of honour.
There is also the obvious problem that this travel lifestyle is fundamentally terrible news for the planet God has called us to steward. I won’t go into this too much, but you get the picture.
The dream can actually be a nightmare.
But, as I am learning, staying put can be incredibly healing. I now live in a smallish city in England, and the community here has been teaching me a lot over the last five years. This is the longest I have ever lived in one place since I left my parents at age 17.
The most important thing God is teaching me right now is that, putting down roots can actually help reverse the sin of self-absorption.
For example, the simple act of planting a garden is teaching me how to love the earth, to recognise and submit to the seasons, to be hopeful, and to be still. Caring for something like a plant requires a huge amount of patience which I am not known for having, and it forces me to turn my attention outward.
Moreover, being committed to an incarnational community requires a different kind of generosity than what I am used to. Generosity is no longer about just sending cash to an organisation (this is good, please keep doing this!) but it is also about cooking meals for friends when they have a baby, or doing grocery shopping for neighbours who are self-isolating during Covid-19, or allowing one’s schedule to be interrupted by a friend who needs someone to sit and pray with them. This is actually more costly than just sending out cash, but it is much more rewarding.
Of course there are benefits to travel, and I don’t need to list them all here because society tells us this all the time. I doubt I’ll ever stop travelling – mostly because my family live all over the world and I need to see them from time to time! But my main point is that we should not envy the wandering nomad. Having a home is a gift from God, and you should cherish it.
You cannot grow without putting down roots, and your roots will die if you are transplanted too often.
So be encouraged to stay put. The Lord may have more opportunity to work on your heart, which is what is most important to him.
The New Lonely by Ethan Renoe. He also has a blog worth following here.
How Travel Narrows the Mind by Giles Fraser
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller