What sort of tools do we have to find where we belong in the world?
If it were merely a matter of finding a specific place, then the task would be fairly easy.
On any sort of longer trek these days, the global positioning system (GPS) has become invaluable. Such devices, using satellite technology, enable us to pinpoint our exact location anywhere on the planet. But of course, unless we know what we're looking for or where we're going, that doesn't really help us much.
A few years ago, for instance, a friend of ours, Gary, was using his GPS to find the cabin that he and his friends were staying at on a fishing trip in Canada. As they approached the site in their powerboat, Gary had his eyes fixed on the readout of his device. He kept ordering the boat's driver to "go south, go south, go south!" When the driver kept heading straight on, Gary became incensed! "Why don't you go south? It says right here on the device that we need to go south!"
The boat's driver just laughed and directed Gary's attention away from the readout on his device to the shore before them. "Look," he said, "the cabin's right here." And with that, he pulled into the dock and stepped out to their waiting cabin just a few feet away.
The lesson here is that in spite of how effective and useful technologies like GPS might be, we still need to rely on our senses—both internal and external—to tell us where we are. We need to attune to our innate sense of direction to guide us ... given that we might already be where we're trying to get to.
And this means, as we have mentioned, that we need to think about place as more than just a physical space. All too often, people in the second half of life conceive of place solely in terms of the outward environment. They pack up their belongings and move to a warmer clime, install themselves in a tiny condo thousands of miles from their roots, and then wonder why, in spite of the exterior heat, they feel so cold inside.
A real sense of belonging to a place involves more than just physical comfort. A sense that we are seen by others, that our contributions matter, that we are making a difference and touching people's lives plays an even more vital role in helping us to feel like we're where in the world we belong.
We can assist our internal investigation into where our outward home in the world is by introspection and through discussion with others. Some of the questions we can ask ourselves that will help us in figuring this out include:
How important to me is climate?
What sort of physical environment helps me to feel most at home?
What medical and social services are essential to my sense of safety and place?
What cultural activities do I need in a place I call home?
What opportunities are available for me to express my calling through work in this community?
How important is it to me to be in close proximity to my family?
Answering such questions, preferably in discussion with people you care about and who care about you, can provide an important foundation for truly understanding where we belong in the world and where in the world it is we call home.
As a woman of "a certain age," Betsy Hutchinson is reluctant to state her true chronological identity. "Women of my generation were taught not to reveal certain things; I suppose I still hold on to that. Let me put it this way," she says, "I'm much younger than my mother was when she was this old."
Betsy is not a young woman, but she exudes a young spirit. Probably that's because she spends so much time around young children. A teacher for a progressive preschool in the Seattle area, her days are filled with negotiating the spaces of 3- and 4-year-olds, kids young enough to be her great-grandchildren. I didn't set out to do this in 'retirement,'" she says. "I taught middle school for 30 years, and when I left the classroom, I was sure I was done with it. My dream was to move to New Mexico and do the Georgia O'Keeffe thing. I was going to wear turquoise bracelets and be a painter."
"Well, I tried it. I sold my house in the Northwest—as a widow, it was fairly easy. I didn't have to worry about anyone else's stuff. And I moved to this great little cottage just outside of Santa Fe. I had my paints, my easel, and I was taking some art classes at the local college. Talk about idyllic. Well I lasted exactly six and a half months. There came a time, about halfway into the thing, where I would get up, get out my paints, and wonder—excuse me—what the hell? I found myself driving by the local elementary school on my way to classes at the college, trying to catch glimpses of the kids playing on the playground. Good thing the cops weren't following me; they might have pulled me over as a suspicious character," she laughs.
"Anyway," she admits, "it became pretty obvious to me that my real home, if you will, is the classroom. Well, with my connections in the Northwest, it was a lot easier to find a way back into one than it would have been in New Mexico. So, I made some calls, set up some interviews, and came back here.
"I always wanted to work with younger children, and I've long been interested in Rudolph Steiner's Waldorf approach to education—something that wasn't really an option as a public school teacher—so here I am. If you'd have told me a couple of years ago that I'd be spending my days these days teaching preschool, I'd have said you were off your rocker. But you'd have had the last laugh, because here I am."