On Leaving

What’s the price of restlessness?

By Ben Wolford


Last year, my wife and I moved to a new apartment in Brooklyn, excited to melt into the scenery of the world’s most dynamic neighborhood. It was New Year’s Day 2014. We put our eagerness ahead of our hangovers, rented a Zipcar and drove to IKEA. We bought a bed, mattress, desk for me to work on, dresser, dining table and chairs, kitchen shelves, bookshelves, sofa bed, underbed storage, side table and a beautiful dark orange wingback chair that still gives me a cozy feeling looking at pictures of it.

In May, we auctioned off what we could sell and left the rest on the curb. We moved to Thailand because we decided — after our restlessness and ambition got the better of our compulsion to nest — we wanted to pursue careers abroad. This month, less than a year later, we again found ourselves packing, our Bangkok apartment cluttered with luggage, because my wife got a job in the Dominican Republic. For the fifth time in four years, I left a place and a job behind. I left more people I care about behind.

I have a friend who recently left a place, too, and he’s worried about whether he’s done the right thing. He grew close to people, and now he’s excited to move onto something new. One of those people took it hard and texted him: “Please go away. Leave me alone. Good luck. You won’t be missed.”

It reminded me of the scene toward the end of Into the Wild (I haven’t read the book) where Christopher McCandless is sitting in the cab of an old man’s truck at the end of the road in Alaska. For months, Christopher spent his days endearing himself to others — enough to crush them when he left. The lonely old man sobbed, perhaps with a little bitterness, as he said goodbye.

Leaving is a recurring subject in literature. Odysseus. Aeneus. The prodigal son. Bilbo Baggins. In Dubliners, many of James Joyce’s characters are ripped in half by forces compelling them to leave the city or remain in it. Eveline, a young woman in love with a sailor, is thrilled by the idea of Buenos Aires. But when the boat prepares to embark and her lover beckons to her from the gangway, she clings paralyzed to a railing. Meanwhile, those who’ve left — like the London society man Gallaher — engender envy in those they’ve left behind. Gallaher’s old mate, Little Chandler, returns home, after a dazzling night out together, to his humdrum life where “tears of remorse started to his eyes.”

A portrait of the artist in Zurich.

In these stories, the ones who leave seem not to notice the pain they inflict. But the fact the reader notices suggests the guilt of the authors. When Dubliners was published, Joyce was living in Trieste, Italy, the first of several foreign cities he would live in for the rest of his life. Many historical expatriates abandoned their homelands for more dramatic reasons than most of us — fleeing a draft, protesting a government, even escaping institutional racism. Ernest Hemingway and, later, the beatniks, went to Paris to satisfy artistic yearning and to steep themselves within a culture that freed them of whatever shackles our homes seem to impose on our souls.

Hemingway’s impulse may explain the modern youth exodus, which seems to have skipped most generations. My grandfather happily worked for the same union company in Suffield, Ohio, built his home himself and raised a large family with no intention of ever leaving. When he retired, he lived on his pension. My parents, too, have lived in Northeast Ohio their entire lives.

When I was in high school, I read The Razor’s Edge, a story about a young man who sees the world, and I became very afraid. I sat in the office of my humanities teacher and talked about how terrified I was that I’d get married, buy a house, have a child and live in the suburbs. I know a lot of people, including my wife, who had worried about the very same thing. It never occurred to me that I had a choice. Some people don’t. I have friends with spouses, houses and children. It took me years to realize these aren’t bad things. (I’m married, and it’s been more enabling than inhibiting.)

Wishing for 1975 (Flickr)

And yet Millennials continue to be the most restless generation in American history.* One million of us move across state lines every year, according to City Observatory. Spiteful sectors of the older generations have diagnosed us with “restless entitlement syndrome.” It’s not completely wrong. For some reason, we feel unfulfilled, a selfish notion we don’t entirely understand. Paradoxically, we’re also the most nostalgic generation. We click “like” when Facebook posts ask us if we ever had a [fill in an outmoded technology]. We’re even nostalgic for things that outdate us: Polaroid cameras, horn-rimmed glasses, music featuring the mandolin. Reaching forward, longing backward, we pack our things.

I’ve forfeited a close relationship with my sister, a decade my junior, and I know my aging parents miss me. My wife feels similar guilt. I have friends who’ve said the same. How to quantify or describe the joys and emotional rewards of being present in the lives of loved ones? I wouldn’t know; I’ve chosen not to experience it.

Earlier this month, as my wife and I wrapped up our lives in Bangkok, I asked her broadly whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to always be moving. She said it’s a bad thing, as her eyes welled at the thought of the clients she entrusted to the care of others (she works in legal aid). So why do we go? What do we gain? She said something to the effect of, “Because it expands us.”

Neither she nor I could figure out exactly what that means, to be expanded. To have our horizons broadened. I went hunting for writing on the topic.

Emerson

The best answer I found comes from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Compensation.” Emerson didn’t believe the scripture teaching that the first would be last and the last would be first on Judgment Day. He believed the universe balances things right here on earth, through the constant changes happening around us and within us.

But most people don’t see change as a good thing. Especially when the change is bad, like the death of a loved one or a financial downturn, we fight it. “We are idolators of the old,” Emerson says. And so when the change inevitably comes, it seems abrupt. It hurts.

What we ought to do is let our “worldly relations hang very loosely” around us. If we invite changes — instead of closing ourselves to them — then we allow ourselves to be swept up in their daily inevitability. We prime ourselves for new ideas and new friends. Most importantly, we become bearers of ideas for others. We are someone’s new friend.

In characteristic 19th-century prose, Emerson compares us to comfortable garden plants, ignorant of our potential and of the world beyond:

“The man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener, is made the banyan of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men.”


Ben Wolford is the editor of Latterly magazine, an independent publisher of international journalism.

*I suppose there’s a difference between restlessness and actual mobility. As a friend just pointed out, Millennials are the least mobile generation in the last 50 years because of the Great Recession, the Associated Press reported in 2013.