Home and Unfamiliarity

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Home is where your heart is is a versatile used English phrase, more and more frequently used by younger people. In 2009 Moritz Hippich, for example, started the German fashion label Home is where your heart is. In the same year the Swedish Indie-Band The Sounds launched their song Home is where your heart is. In the Internet you can find a huge variety on essays and blogs about this slogan, which expresses, even though shortened, what “home” for people means. Home does not necessarily signify a place, an employment or a house, so it is neither site-specifically nor a material thing. Rather is home something that you feel as home and with which you can identify. Like the phrase already expresses, it is the heart, which has to be put in the focus of the topic. It is the heart, which symbolizes our inner emotions and feelings, which beats faster when we are excited, which is strained when we get nervous and which is warm when we love.

But what does “home” mean now? If home was everything where my heart beats faster, then the gym or a possible future employer I have an interview at has to be called my home as well. This is not the case though. Home is significantly more diverse and complex than just the idea of an apartment or a house to which I “go home” after a workday. When I think of home, on the one side I have in mind my extended family in Austria, including my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. But why is this so? I might see them two to three times a year, they live on the countryside, I live in the city and overall; they have a completely different lifestyle than I do. Why are they still home to me? Why do I feel home? It is not the country or the way of living that makes me feel home. Rather it is the interpersonal occurrences that aroused over the years that make me feel home. There is history, in respect of culture as well as family history that connects us. Moreover, the surrounding is familiar to me, I know their daily life, I know how they think and I understand them. This knowledge about them, about their habitus and the environment in general gives me a physical as also mentally feeling of security. Not only do I get security due to a familiar surrounding, I also trust them on a very personal level. They have always welcomed me with open arms, with a big smile and sparkling eyes. They always took care of me, gave me attention and recognition, something to eat and a cosy place to sleep. So banal this might sound, so essential it is for a strong feeling of trust. When I trust someone, I open up a space in which I have the expectation that this person or these persons act in a way we all are okay with. If I have this sense of trust, it also includes security; I have a solid ground under my feet. Even though they live on the countryside and I live in the city and we have relatively different life plans and views of life, yet we share same values. We show consideration for one another, we always welcome and appreciate the other person, no matter how their personal lifestyle might be. Through education I have partly gotten the values, which inter alia strengthened the attachment between us as a family. Summarized, home includes feelings of familiarity or intimacy and trust, of attachment, sharing of values, feeling in good hands and a common past, history and tradition. When I talk about my extended family and this part of home, I always shorten it and just speak of my grandma. I then say “I’m visiting my grandma.” or “I’m at my grandma’s place.”, whereas she is representing the entire extended family. For me she has a quite important meaning; she stands for secureness and care, recognition and love.

So I feel home at my extended family. However, with sixteen I got another home; in Michigan, USA. For one school semester I (as an only child) lived with a family having four children. It took me not even a month to feel that this is another home to me, incommensurable to my family in Austria. Often I have describes it as two different worlds. After few months I emailed my Mom that for the first time I have experienced sibling love. Even though we do not share the same history and have different nationalities, there is still this strong feeling of deep connectedness.

Through this family’s being they opened up a space for me to be the way I want to be and at the same time they reacted to my being. This reciprocal reaction can also be described as resonance; the American family and I were in a resonance space in which we responded to one another, not because the circumstances required it but because of our characters. To be truly oneself and be able to act this way involves a feeling of security. When people show their inner being, they make themselves vulnerable at the same time because they do not know about the acceptance and recognition of their personality. The feeling to be secure in one’s environment entails – speaking with Heidegger – to be his/her own being as such[1].

Moreover, to live out ones being and personality involves something restful, loosening and liberating. I am free as a person when I can live up my principles that I consider to be right and valuable. Yet, these principles are modifiable and can change during life. Probably most people are quite glad about the fact that their attitude towards life has changes since adolescence. Furthermore we also change personal ideals, our attitude to certain situations, persons and behaviours. Since we all change in our being somehow during life, also the people with whom we can live out our very own being and so where we can find a feeling of home in general might change as well. Most of the time, there are only few people who are with us a life long and give us the feeling of being home. Often are parents, siblings or the life partner one of them, but there are also “friends for life” who give us the space in which we feel secure and home. No matter how much these friends might change, between some people this specific resonance lasts continuously, a mutual understanding and trust stays present. We have the trust, that the other person will always accept and love us, no matter how much we might change in life. We share a great and solid resonance space with people who accompany us through life and who can give us the feeling of being home. We share a space of understanding and being understood, of trustiness and therefore secureness, it’s the space of being home. The definition of home consists of a plurality of people’s emotions, combined with their past, history, tradition, rituals and values. As I have already shown, a shared background is not necessary but rather sufficient to be able to experience home. There are no determined frameworks needed because home is a quite complex term, which refers superficial and mainly to feelings that can partly be caused by history and rituals. Moreover, home means to have been arrived, to jauntily realize ones inner personality, to experience physical as mental security and to give and also receive love and trust.

The German word “Geborgenheit” defies translation, yet it is quite important in relation to home and therefore necessary to be outlined. The term Geborgenheit probably fits best to the feeling of home and includes all emotions describing home that have been mentioned here so far. The German Newspaper Süddeutsche characterizes Geborgenheit with descriptions like “security”, “protection”, “warmth”, “trust”, “acceptance” and “love”. Looking at the term’s etymology, it can be derived from the German word “bergen” (retrieve), which, amongst others, originally means “get to safety”. The prefix “ge-“ in combination with a verb expresses a momentarily event that often marks the beginning or the end of it. So home is the moment of having arrived after one was in search before that moment. Therefore, the event would be the feeling of having arrived as the end of the search. Children, who grew up in an unstable environment and never experienced this feeling of Geborgenheit, will always be looking for the feeling of having arrived. Figuratively speaking the parent’s role can be compared with a harbour and a ship. The harbour provides security and safety and is a place to which the ship eventually arrives. The ship, in turn, guides the child outside the harbour and shows the world so that it can see how the world looks somewhere else, maybe better, maybe worse and therefore the child can see what to change back home and what to value. Thus, the harbour, on the one side, offers a home to which we can always come back and arrive at. The ship, on the other side, carries us away from home, going out into the unknown. The instanced emblem shows how unfamiliarity (driving out ship) has to be seen as the necessary counterpart to home (harbour). The ship would be lost without its harbour, just like people feel lost when experiencing crises. The harbour would not have any meaning if there were no ship to give shelter. Therefore, the unknown is nothing exclusively threatening and negative. Generally speaking, to experience something foreign means to experience unknowingness, unfamiliarity, something new and different. That can be a foreign culture, foreign people, a new situation or an unfamiliar environment, implying unknown ideologies and life plans which we did not know before. All these opportunities are possible to experience, in a positive way in which they enrich us as also in a negative respect that they restrict and harm.

Otherness in a negative approach, simply spoken, is the complete opposite of home. It means unfamiliarity, to not be understood and to not understand. If I find myself in a completely new situation where I do not find any grip and am totally disoriented, in which I have neither a relation to people nor my environment; then I feel foreign. In this situation I do not understand why and which things happen, what kinds of actions were carried out and why so and therefore I have no idea what is and will be happening overall. Disorientation and instability as also unpredictability and arbitrariness are terms that describe the feeling of otherness and unknowingness. If I cannot control a situation or assess people to some extent, the situation or the person seems strange and alien to me. If this experience of unfamiliarity becomes extreme, it turns into something threatening and the foreigner becomes an enemy.

Humans originally reject foreign entities or do not recognize them. This is a natural reaction, which can already be seen in biology. The body rejects foreign bodies in various ways in order to protect itself. The eyes are flinching or the entire body winces when being tickled or scared. So when something is foreign to us, we instinctively decline it. In this way, that we do not understand the foreign, misunderstandings arise and thus people often end up in conflicts. Moreover, feelings of insecurity, a lack of understanding and non-recognition lead to not sufficiently developing trust and a feeling of crushing one’s identity occurs. To identify oneself means to define one and therewith to distinguish from others. I do not mean an “either-or-decision” but a clear subscription of ones being. By every single decision a person makes, every action she takes and every kind of being herself, she already define herself. Yet, if she does not get the chance to fully and unrestrictedly develop an identity, due to an invasion of the foreign, she is even harder trying to define and differentiate herself from everything that is foreign and alien. Borders or limits evoke a feeling of security and definition (lat. finis, boundary, limit, border), but every kind of imbalance and extremes eventually leads to an extreme on the other side as well. So if the fact of the foreign, accompanied with all the feelings described so far, is exceedingly present, also the delimitation to it becomes even greater. Due to a fear of losing ones frame completely, it gets strengthened even more vehemently. When we face threat to identity and security, the experience of the foreign can have a negative impact quite likely. I consider that a negative impact arises especially when the frame was not solid from the beginning, the ground was too soft to proceed with firm steps or when not being able to remain steadfastly while facing challenges. Therefore, to have experienced a sufficient feeling of home helps to superiorly get by unknown, foreign situations.

Let’s return to the picture of the ship and the harbour. To leave the harbour and face unknown situations means to start an adventure that implies a broadening of the horizon as also risks. Since foreign situations are always something unknown, we never know what to expect. To set off on an adventure also means to set off old perspectives and habits in order to face new things. To broaden one’s horizon means to get to know diversity, different aspects, life plans, rituals or histories. Thereby, one is questioning ones own values and ideals, maybe changing some but also strengthen them. The frame that got built through the feeling of home gets widened as also strengthened. Possibly I can orientate myself differently within the frame, yet I will not completely reject it. In order to draw the lines of my frame and define it, I have to know against what I draw them, what is going too far for me and where there might still be room to walk further. The ground I walk on has to be solid so I can land well when I stumble against foreign stones and climb over them.

 

The matter of unfamiliarity and home presuppose each other. Home offers protection and security and strengths us in our individual and personal being. At the same time we need unfamiliarity to question and develop our own horizon, that is the way we perceive and understand life.

Home and the unfamiliarity are two contrastive terms; I cannot understand one term without understanding the other. The two terms take up the position of creating a meaning by building contrasts and differences. If I never leave the feeling of home, I will not understand and comprehend what trust, security or safety and acceptance really means. I would only know that these terms theoretically exist.

To get a better understanding of known and familiar things, the experience of the opposite, so of unfamiliar, new and unknown things is necessary. Only by difference and some distance we get a feeling and understanding for certain terms. So there is not only understanding and not understanding but also misunderstanding. It is not just about the exact opposite but also about the certain difference of notions that draw a meaning even clearer. For instance, I know that my mom loves me but once I have experienced what it means to not being able to receive my mother’s love I will understand what the meaning of it really is. I also know that my siblings and friends accept me the way I am but once I have undergone that some parts of my personality did not get accepted or even rejected I understand the various levels, the delicate nuances and different meanings of acceptance and all the other terms.

Being in search of and the feeling of having arrived repeat alternately. But first we have to build a frame or a solid ground on which we can walk on. Parents, for example, are a source of Geborgenheit, a feeling of having arrived. However, also a safe surrounding and other people can give children the feeling of Geborgenheit. Once we have built our own frame and experienced home we can start over again with the search of an adventure. Thereby we expand the frame, we question it and reposition ourselves in it. How often we are in search in course of our life varies from person to person, also we might get lost or stumble and we arrive and leave again. This on-going process is necessary to us because we can then question the values and views that were given to us by education, on which we haven’t had any influence.

Home and unfamiliarity are also mutually dependent in terms of tension and easing of tension. Wherever we are at home, we do not have a role nor fulfil any expectations, but offers a place of retreat and relaxation, a place for inner calm. Even though I write about a place here, I do not certainly mean a physical place but the circumstances that allow the feeling of having arrived, a feeling of home. Continuous relaxation eventually leads to flaccidity, which is the other extreme. To counteract and keep experiencing the actual meaning of relaxation it needs some tension, being in search of, starting an adventure. In doing so, it can even happen that one finds home in former unfamiliarity.

The frame gets widened and whatever has just been unknown and foreign is now part of one’s home. Just like I have started an adventure with sixteen, I left my familiar and trusted surrounding and abroad, in a foreign country with another language and different people I have found the feeling of home. To walk along an adventure and take a risk does not mean to risk but to deliberately face and deal with a challenge. In which way a person deals with a challenge depends on the person itself as also other people and circumstances. Since unfamiliarity also always means unknowingness I also did not know what my adventure holds ready and it was certainly not only my decision that this family would be my new home. Rather there were different factors, circumstances and individual persons that played an important role. We all together built a space of resonance in which the feeling of home unfolded.

Eventually it is necessary that a person keeps ones balance between home and unfamiliarity. If we experience too little of unfamiliarity and stay in our known surrounding, it will be impossible to have a balanced relation to ones own identity, to the feeling of home but also to the feeling of foreign situations. If a person is in search once in a while, the fact of being in search won’t be foreign anymore. And do I face foreign things once in a while unfamiliarity itself won’t be foreign to me anymore. Contrarily we need the feeling of Geborgenheit, the protecting harbour to which we can always come back after an adventure. I can only deal with foreign situations if I have a strong and solid personality, however, never solidified in order to stay revisable. If I have never or barely experienced the feeling of home, I probably won’t be able to experience unfamiliarity since I am still in the “first state of being in search” to first leave the harbour.

When the feeling of unfamiliarity outweighs, so when everything is foreign und happens arbitrarily to me, then I cannot trust anything and a certain basic trust ceases. This basic trust includes solid knowledge about various things and a feeling of control over a situation one is in. Is this basic feeling gone, as I said before, I flee or lose myself looking for control over everything that is somehow familiar to me and I am not open for anything different, new and unknown.

[1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#Que

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