Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

You Can’t Go Home Again

But we keep trying.

Posted Nov 20, 2017

“Home for the holidays” promises “all the comforts of home.” But holidays also bring warnings about the sorrows of home, from hangovers and overeating to depression. Why do we do it? Is it a homing instinct? An addiction? Just unfinished business?

In The Homing Instinct, Bernd Heinrich calls home “our own good place.” [1] The word ”good” is nebulous but you know what he means. Home is familiar and you feel safe. Ideally, the family recharges relationships and self-worth. As memory and personal news fill out life stories, they also revive the reality of the family.

As a group, the family, living and past, puts a ground under you. It explains where you came from and named you. You belong, and family knows who you are. They promise to accept you, even help you. Children and grandchildren promise to carry the family into the future.

Not so fast. We’re ambivalent creatures. Insolubly ambivalent. We have positive and negative feelings about everything. Even families. We want to belong, but we also want to be unique and stand on our own two feet. The family protects you when it’s not suffocating you. It’s nurturant but also, like other animals, competitive. Everybody wants more life. Sibling rivalry pushes and shoves at the nipple. Everybody wants their “own good place” and their own superior self.

Since we’ve evolved a nervous system tuned for survival, our appetite for more life is relentless. Who doesn’t want more love, beauty, excitement, and dessert? Life is always too short. Since you have seven billion competitors out there, it pays to have help. Like a gang or “our crowd,” family can make you feel bigger, stronger, more substantial. Like other animals, we’re inclined to divide the world into Us and Them, and usually family is Us. It’s how we’re built [2].

But who’s Us and Them these days? We’re told that it’s an era of populism, America First, Me-first libertarianism, and bowling alone. You can no longer take your job or home with you. In social media, you have “friends” with scare quotes around them, and can text your “family” or palpate your "relationship." As if that's not challenging enough, growing up still requires you to recognize that your parents are just ordinary bipeds, with goofy twists like their parents had, and their parents too. The magical nest you cherish actually consisted of ordinary boxy rooms with doorknobs, right angles, and gravity. 

In a world without home, pixie dust is dangerous as opioids. It's a grabby world of scripted "sincerity" and barking messiahs. The rich get greedier, the poor get fined. If you trust the neighbors and feel that we’re all in this together, then home sprawls over the horizon as globalism—where your job is scheduled to go next Tuesday, and where refugees by the thousands are losing their homes and sometimes lives. 

But the unsettled moment can also set you free. It enables you to see that “home” is only a useful illusion. It's not the all-important origin it pretends to be. Like the word “God,” home is a way of packaging ideals that may distract you from truly unfathomable mysteries: Where do we come from? Why are we here? But also: What are we not seeing?

Is there any ground to experience? [3] The fact is, nobody knows for sure. Religions are grounded in faith. War and terrorism are grounded in no man’s land and cemeteries. Real estate greed buys ground, puts a fence around it, and calls the cops. A whole genre of New Yorker cartoons guffaws at the absurdity of Heaven and Hell featuring golf carts or toasters. 

If you can see that home has always been a useful illusion, it frees you. You can ask What’s actually there? Who am I really talking to? Who am I not seeing? It takes curiosity and imaginative sympathy to discover how others are using “home.” You can be surprised.

A midwestern friend who grew up in an adoptive family tells me that a year go he decided to catch up with elderly relatives in his birth family. Going home, he stopped on a whim in the little country cemetery where his father was buried and sat by the grave for a while, surrounded by family names. “And I suddenly got this really deep and peaceful feeling that here I am, among my peeps (as the young folks say), and it felt like I was being given a gentle cosmic hug. It is hard to explain, and I wouldn't at all try to build a metaphysics on it, though it does say something important, I would say, about at least my own psycho/emotional make-up.”

“It is hard to explain,” he admits, and he knows better than to build another ancestor cult out of his experience. He’s a savvy guy. Maybe he's wary of mistaking our troublesome Us vs. Them instinct for a cosmic hug. Yet he senses that the “hug” tells him “something important” about who he is. He’s curious. Still growing.

If you’re not getting enough of your own good stuff, as William James said, you can try twice as hard or be satisfied with half as much. In today’s photoshopped America, with the whip marketed as a miraculous workout tool, they want you to try harder.

(Act now and get two whips for the price of one. Just pay shipping and handling.)

That’s not the only option.


1. Bernd Heinrich, The Homing Instinct: Meaning & Mystery in Animal Migration (2014). Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Ithaca, 1978)

2. Robert Sapolsky,  "Why Your Brain Hates Other People,  Nautilus, 049 

3. Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015), p. 5