Why We Always Leave

It might be youth. It might be the reptilian impulses of a species with migration encoded in its DNA. It might be your inferiority complex or the boredom of small-town claustrophobia or the exhibitionist streak you’ve never told anyone about.

It might be the hungers of ancestors whose aspirations have sunk into your bones, pushing you to go. It might be loneliness. It might be your inexplicable attraction to “bad boys” or the still unknown thrill of transgression and the hope of feeling something. It might be the self- loathing that has always been so weirdly bound up with a spiritual yearning. It might be the search for a mother, or a father, or yourself. It might be greed or curiosity. It might be liberation or escape. It might be a million other reasons, but we all leave.

It’s like all we ever do is leave.

“Honey, all I know to do is go,” the Indigo Girls confess in “Leaving.” You can leave without a bus ticket, of course. You can depart in your heart and take an existential journey to anywhere but the “here” that’s stifling you. You can be sleeping in the same bed and be a million miles away from your partner. You can still be living in your childhood bedroom and have departed for a distant country. You can play the role of the “good son” with a heart that roams in a twilight beyond good and evil. You can even show up to church every week with a voracious appetite for idols.

Not all prodigals need a passport.

WHY WE LEAVE

We leave because we’re looking. For something. For someone. We leave because we long for something else, something more. We leave to look for some piece of us that’s missing. Or we hit the road to leave ourselves behind and refashion who we are. We hit the road in the hope of finding what we’re looking for—or at least sufficiently distracting ourselves from the hungers and haunting absences that propelled our departure in the first place.

And the road doesn’t disappoint: it offers an unending ribbon of sights and stop-offs whose flashing billboards promise exactly what you’re looking for—happiness, satisfaction, joy. Indeed, the road has a strange way of showing what looks like a destination in the distance that, when you get there, points to another destination beyond it. So just when you think friendship or wealth or a family or influence was your ultimate destination, you hang out there for a while and the place starts to dim.

What once held your fascination—even, for a time, seemed like it was your reason to live—doesn’t “do it” for you anymore. You won’t admit it to yourself for a long while. After all, you sent out all those celebratory announcements about your new existential home. You effectively told everyone you’d arrived; you believed it yourself. But at some point you’ll finally be honest with yourself about the disappointment, and eventually that disappointment becomes disdain, and you can’t wait to get away. Fortunately, just as you start to look around, you see the promise of a new destination down the road.

Like the crew in Kerouac’s On the Road, we convince ourselves that “the road is life.” We’ve been shaped by a book that many of us have never read, the tale of bohemians and beatniks on a journey of self- discovery. On the Road chronicles their quest for experience, for authenticity. The narrator, Sal Paradise, paints a picture of the road that suggests happiness is crooking our straight paths. Like John the Baptist in negative, Sal Paradise proclaims the incessant, frantic way of his messiah, Dean Moriarty: “Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road.” But really, who isn’t?

A PILGRIMAGE DEFERRED

Our road-hunger is like some leftover evolutionary habit from our ancestors. But ours is a pilgrimage without a destination—which is to say, it’s not a pilgrimage at all but rather a pilgrimage deferred, not because we stay home but because we revel in the roaming, or at least try to talk ourselves into that. Our ancestors sang psalms of ascent as they marched to Zion or made the arduous hajj to Mecca or wended their way to Canterbury.

We’ve inherited their pilgrim penchant, but it’s morphed into unsettledness, a baseline antsy feeling that leaves us never feeling at home (which brings to mind the Freudian notion of the “uncanny,” the Unheimlich, not-at-home-ness). We’re always on the move, restless, vaguely chasing something rather than oriented to a destination. We’re all a bit like Mississippi Gene, whom Sal meets in On the Road: “He had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere.”

If the road is life, then we’re not really vagabonds. To be on the way is to have arrived. Ignore “the feeling of sadness only bus stations have”; ignore the nights of despair and move on; don’t get too hung up on your recognition that “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.”

And when you find yourself haunted by the sense that you’ve forgotten something and recognize this as the wake- up call of mortality, the vague way the fear of death settles over your wandering, be like Sal: find a friend who will take you to the club and numb the sound of that revenant. The trick is to convince yourself that the road is life, making restlessness peace, uprootedness home, like Sal:

“The car was swaying as Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives.”

Whether we can really pull this off is the question considered in Up in the Air, a George Clooney film based on the novel by Walter Kirn. Ryan Bingham, played by Clooney, has shed all attachments. He lives on airplanes and is “at home” in airports. His quest isn’t a destination but incessant journeying: he wants to be a million miler. In fact, he has made a career of telling people to shed everything that would hold them down. As a motivational speaker with a gimmicky prop—a backpack filled with all the things that weigh us down, especially relationships—Bingham counsels up-in-the-air independence.

But when his assistant finally challenges him with the question, “What do you want?” Bingham is silent (“You don’t even know what you want,” she spits back.) And when he achieves the sought- after million- miler status, the captain visits him, congratulates him (“We appreciate your loyalty”), and asks, “So where are you from?” Bingham’s only reply is, “I’m from here.” The hollowness rings in his own ears.

WHERE WE’RE GOING

The question that haunts our journey, the question that Sal Paradise is confronted with early on, goes  unanswered: “You boys going to get somewhere,” a Nebraska farmer asks, “or just going?” Looking back, Sal now sees: “We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question.”

Do we tell ourselves we’re “just going” in order to guard against the disappointment of never arriving? Do we call the road “home” to avoid the pain of never being welcomed?

What if you met a saint on the road, and that saint had a map and had spent time at every stop-off that lured but then disappointed you? What if he’d already met the “you” you somehow want to be? What if he could introduce you to the person you’ve been looking for and lead you to a house with many rooms, where a Friend would open the door and say, “Welcome home. You can rest here”?


Excerpted from On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith, 2019. Published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.

James K. A. Smith (Ph.D., Villanova University) is a popular speaker who has written many books, including Awaiting the King, Imagining the Kingdom, How (Not) to Be Secular, and the Christianity Today Book Award winners You Are What You Love, Desiring the Kingdom, and Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? He is professor of philosophy at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He was editor in chief of Comment magazine from 2013 to 2018 and is now editor in chief of Image journal. Smith has written for Christianity Today, First Things, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Washington Post.