Thursday, June 2, 2011

Where Are We From? Part I

So, where are you from?

This has become a difficult question for many of us to answer who live in the developed world. And it is especially a problem in the United States of America, where migration is part of the national tradition of people continually in search of a better life. Here it has been common for generations for people to establish themselves and make their mark upon the world in places very far removed from where they were born and raised. Historically, the movement of population in the U.S. was broadly from East to West. But the post-World War II generation saw the development of the automobile mass transportation network, passenger air travel, and mass communications. In the past 60 years our country is turning more and more into a place where everyone is from all over, and where they presently live may not be a place where they intend to set down any permanent roots.

I have watched this phenomenon develop over the course of my own life, and have experienced it myself. I have also participated in what seems to be something of an unreflective, spontaneous effort by groups of people to reestablish roots in particular places. Common initiatives and commitment to institutions often establish communities where people’s lives are invested in the place where they are. The Janaros seem to be setting down roots by living a deeper level of community with others who have come together to build or take part in the various educational institutions that have found a home in the Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia.

Today we are all very used to the idea of mobility defining our relationship to place. We hardly reflect on the fact that, in the history of the human race, this mobility is a very new kind of freedom. Nor do we give much consideration to how this affects our psychological sense of internal coherence. We are, after all, bodily beings who are “naturally” in only one place at a time, and tend to take in and appropriate (“make our own”) the environment that surrounds us. This must have some impact on the experience of people who live in constantly changing environments.

What are the potential positive elements of this impact? What creative resources are available to the human person to integrate this experience? History has always known instances of the “cosmopolitan” person, rich in wisdom and sensibility about diverse peoples and cultures with whom they have lived. But such persons, historically, were exceptional, often educated and wealthy, and without family ties. Our age is an age of cosmopolitan families and cities, with mobile populations. What this does to the human need for building sustained relationships and community is a matter worthy of further consideration.

These reflections will be continued. In the next entry, I will talk of my own experience of being born as a New York Italian American, and then being transplanted to Western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and–of all places–Italy itself. And why I think it’s important for my children to grow up with a sense that the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is their home, even if someday they live on the moon.