The Lonely Traveler

There are surely as many different kinds of people as there are human beings in the world, but today we’re considering just two: those who, whether from choice or circumstance leave the families of their birth behind to seek out their destiny, and those who keep family central to their journey through life. Some of us are planets revolving around the central sun of family ties, and some are comets.  

Travel is easier now than it has ever been, and we have abandoned our villages to seek our fortunes as far away from the places and peoples of our birth as the limits of a small planet will allow. The momentum of youth, the discovery of self and the lure of adventure pushes many of us outward. Love and affection and support draws us back. Our orbits are defined by the balance between these forces.  

We are a nation of immigrants on a planet of migrants. Our history is a story of explorers and pioneers, prospectors, adventurers, missionaries and rogues pushing out our boundaries until we now occupy almost every corner of the planet. For millions today, the only connection to the families of their birth is a phone call, a letter or the brief appearance of pixels on a screen.

 Only the traveler can judge which pathway, the orbit of a planet or the far flung journey of a comet, is the most rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years visiting nursing homes, and I’ve heard regret near the end of both paths. Some who clung tightly to their family ties regretted the things they might have done but did not, and the places they never got to see. Some who chose a life of adventure regretted not spending more time with family and friends.  

In truth, however, I’ve heard more regret expressed over the latter when the terrible loneliness of a nursing home, family scattered around the globe, friends left in the wake of the journey, becomes palpable. The dull sameness of the endless days and the cold emptiness of the nights can be terrifying in the company of strangers “waiting for God.” Holidays can be cruel reminders of what was lost or abandoned, and a brief visit once or twice a year on Thanksgiving or Christmas does little to fill the emptiness.

But…we’re Facebook friends with mom, and dad has finally learned to Skype. Yes, and technology has allowed the touchscreen to replace human touch for so many, and the agony and unrest of the present day has grown proportionally as the support and stability of the extended family in our society yielded to the ascendancy of the self.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and we have our gratifications and distractions, our dramas and our pixel opinions, even our nanny state all expanding to fill the needs once satisfied by family and community. They are a poor replacement for morality and faith and maturity, for the wisdom of a grandmother, the compassion of a grandfather and the comradery of brothers and sisters and cousins. Technology can never equal the faces of family and friends sitting together around a table.

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