As the holiday season approaches, our attention will, once again, focus on people, values and concepts that we hold dear.
It is often said that “fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.” If that is true, here are some thoughts from another foolish person. There is no four-letter word that carries as much emotional baggage as the word “home.”
Recently, death has stalked a number of my friends and loved ones. What they all shared was the intense desire to go home. Whether they were in a hospital or foreign land, their overriding goal was the same — to get home. Some knew that death was near, so this desire to be home was not because they believed that some magic potion awaited. So what is it about this institution? Perhaps, more significantly, if home is so vital to our existence, how is it that a nation as wealthy as ours can tolerate the sight of people living without one?
Home, apparently, is a place where people want to be when life is most challenging. While age, size and location differ, all homes provide comfort and sustain our bodies and our hearts. Whether we live alone or with others, home can be a source of renewal. Homes can be castles or shacks. Whether it is a house or an apartment matters little. Hal David and Burt Bacharach were correct when they wrote the song “A House is Not a Home.” Great thinkers have long tried to capture, in words, the essence of this institution we call home.
None has been particularly successful because home means something different for each of us. Inevitably, these great minds are reduced to describing some facet of the concept. But no one has adequately touched upon the true nature of the institution. Some say that home is where the heart is. But surely this can’t be the answer.
First, that bromide implies that one who lives alone doesn’t have a home. Second, given the complexity of our lives, our hearts can find comfort in a variety of places during our lifetime. Third, if one is fortunate enough to go to college, home can be several places simultaneously.
The philosophers who have tackled the issue seemed to have failed us in this task. How else does one account for the large number of homeless people in our society? Neither religion, race nor gender matters when we talk about the importance of having a home. How can something so important be denied to so many?
The dialogue about home is further complicated by the fact that even those who are born into this world without one can create their own if given the chance. Perhaps this is why it’s easy to confuse where we live with the intrinsic uniqueness of home as a concept. I’m sure that my friends and family had more than a building in mind as they passionately yearned to return to their homes.
The people displaced by Hurricane Katrina don’t refer to their FEMA trailers as home. Home is more than just a place. It is associated with tangibles and intangibles that defy categorizing. Perhaps this is why so many of us were moved by the plight of those on the roofs and in the Superdome in New Orleans. Instinctively, we recognized that the lives of our fellow citizens would be irreparably changed. Their loss was far greater than mere property. It was as though a part of their souls had been washed away in the waters of Katrina.
Home is a place that has so much emotional meaning to each of us that it nearly transcends everything else in life. It is where we find our favorite comfortable chair, slippers or photograph that encapsulates memories of another era. Without a home, people feel somehow diminished.
It is a shame that we cannot ensure that everyone has a home. While this wouldn’t solve all of our social ills, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
(Robert V. Ward Jr. is dean of the Southern New England School of Law in North Dartmouth, Mass. E-mail him at rward(at)snesl.edu.)