Dreaming: Sense of Place, Sense of Self

I don’t spend a lot of time trying to remember dreams or thinking about them when I do remember them. But the last couple of nights some dreams were lingering in my mind upon awakening. There always is something odd about dreams, unpredictable and often unrelated to everyday life.

Dreams have the power to mesmerize for a similar reason stories draw us in. With any story, we are beholden to the narrator, reliable or not. The narrator determines the warp and woof of the narrated world. In a dream, our mind is the narrator which doesn’t make it any more reliable or necessarily even familiar.

There is one major difference with dreams. The narrator is more hidden because the narrating mind is behind rather than in front of our dreaming consciousness. That might be the reason why identity of the dream-self seems so uncertain. It rarely comes up in a dream who I am. I simply am. The focus of dreaming is rarely on the self but what the self is doing.

More than identity, what defines most of my dreams is a sense of place, the world of that particular dream. That seems important. The dream-world determines the actions and interactions of the dream-self. So often dreams have carefully prescribed spaces that constrain choices and determine possibilities. I typically find myself in a building, a room, a hallway, a pathway, a street, a tunnel, a stairway, etc. One space opens up to another space, ever leading onward somewhere else. A sense of time in a dream is defined by movement and movement is defined by a change of location or vantage point, a shift in space linked to a shift in time.

It is like with vision. If you hold your eyes perfectly still in a perfectly still environment, your vision eventually goes blank. This happens because perception is dependent upon change, on contrast.

The world, dreaming or waking, and our movement within it determines our sense of self. Not the other way around. The sense of self is a secondary experience or rather an extension of a more fundamental experience, the waves and eddies on the surface of very deep waters.

This brings the nurture vs nature debate down to a more basic level of psychological experience. In a dream, there is no nurture vs nature, no external vs internal. Reality instead is a cotinuum, a singular experience: Being-in-the-world.

Sense of Place, of Home, of Community… or lack thereof

As I work as a cashier, I always have plenty of time to read and there are often newspapers available. Otherwise, I’d be mostly ignorant of old media. There is something quite relaxing about reading a paper. Anyways, the pleasure of physical reading material isn’t the point of this post. I just wanted to give credit to the dying old media.

The real reason for this post is an article I came across in the Wall Street Journal:

The Homeward Bound American
By Jennifer Graham

[taste.graham]

That article is about the data from recently published research:

Residential Mobility, Well-being, and Mortality
By Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack

The research is about moving and the impact it has on children (family being a topic that has been on my mind recently: Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). I guess it does relate to old media and to the world that once was. It may be hard to believe that there was a time when moving was uncommon. Once upon a time, every town probably had at least one if not several newspapers offering local perspectives on everything. Could you imagine reading the same newspaper your whole life which was reported by and which reported on the same local people you knew your entire life?

In the United States, though, the stable community has always been more of an ideal than a reality. We are, of course, the land of immigrants, the land of a people constantly moving Westward. At this point, it might be in our very genetics. All the people with homebody genetics stayed in their homelands while their restless family members ventured to the New World. Those who weren’t given a choice in making this ocean trip, such as slaves and refugees, often had their entire culture destroyed and their connection to their homeland lost. Americans are a rootless people, whether by choice or not (which I’ve written about before: Homelessness and Civilization; in that post, I point out the Christian theology of homelessness).

It took Americans to create something like the internet which has challenged old media and traditional communities. Even the media Americans create tend towards rootlessness. A lot of good things have come out of this American attitude of embracing innovation, of embracing the new. It’s easy for us to rationalize our national character as being a great thing. Americans idealize optimism, but optimism can’t deny reality. No matter how willing we are to move (with about half the population moving in their lifetime), the above linked research shows that it doesn’t necessarily lead to healthy results. I intuitively felt this to be true, but until now I haven’t had hard data to support my intuition.

My thoughts on the matter are influenced by my own personal experience. I’m an American and I think I’m a fairly typical American in many ways. I moved around some while growing up. By the 8th grade, I had lived in 4 states. The place I spent my high school years in was a large city and so it wasn’t conducive to developing a sense of home and community. I actually ended up longing for the previous town we had lived in because I had many friends there and it was a small town with more of a stable community. In the different schools I went to, there was always a core group of kids who had known each other their entire lives. I could see the immense difference between them and I. This may have been made even more clear because I spent my early years in the Midwest before having moved to South Carolina. Along with the sense of having loss my home and my friends, I experienced some major culture shock. The entire time I lived there, South Carolina never felt like home. My brothers and I moved back to the Midwest as soon as we had an opportunity. I suspect this somewhat transitory childhood has had long-term impact on myself and my brothers.

Let me first point out some of the results of the research. Here is from a Science Daily article about the same research:

Moving Repeatedly in Childhood Linked With Poorer Quality-of-Life Years Later, Study Finds

The researchers found that the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and psychological well-being at the time they were surveyed, even when controlling for age, gender and education level. The research also showed that those who moved frequently as children had fewer quality social relationships as adults.

The researchers also looked to see if different personality types — extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism — affected frequent movers’ well-being. Among introverts, the more moves participants reported as children, the worse off they were as adults. This was in direct contrast to the findings among extraverts. “Moving a lot makes it difficult for people to maintain long-term close relationships,” said Oishi. “This might not be a serious problem for outgoing people who can make friends quickly and easily. Less outgoing people have a harder time making new friends.”

The findings showed neurotic people who moved frequently reported less life satisfaction and poorer psychological well-being than people who did not move as much and people who were not neurotic. Neuroticism was defined for this study as being moody, nervous and high strung. However, the number and quality of neurotic people’s relationships had no effect on their well-being, no matter how often they had moved as children. In the article, Oishi speculates this may be because neurotic people have more negative reactions to stressful life events in general.

The researchers also looked at mortality rates among the participants and found that people who moved often as children were more likely to die before the second wave of the study. They controlled for age, gender and race. “We can speculate that moving often creates more stress and stress has been shown to have an ill effect on people’s health,” Oishi said. “But we need more research on this link before we can conclude that moving often in childhood can, in fact, be dangerous to your health in the long-term.”

My brothers and I all have some predispositions toward such things as introversion, depression and anxiety. I don’t think any of us deal with stress all that well. Of course, I can’t know how we would’ve turned out if we hadn’t moved around so much. The only comparison I can make is with my parents. Unlike their children, they had relatively stable childhoods at least in terms of growing up in a stable communities (I know my mom even lived in the same house while growing up, the house that her father built). The difference is that they chose to move after they had become adults and their relatively stable childhoods seemed to have provided an internal sense of stability that allowed them to adapt well to moving to new places. If they hadn’t wanted to move or decided they didn’t like their first move, they could’ve chosen not to move away from their home or they could’ve chosen to immediately move back to their home community. As children, my brothers and I had no such choice because our parents chose for us.

I’m of mixed opinion. I don’t know how much parents can be blamed, especially in the past. Much of this research is recent and so people didn’t used to know about it. On the other hand, my parents knew stability and have always stated a belief in family values. So, why didn’t it occur to them that a stable home and community might be an integral part of family values? To generalize beyond just my parents, why do conservatives (and other Americans as well) idealize the nuclear family as an isolated entity with extended family and community simply being nice things to have around if convenient? Part of me wants to pick on the conservatives because they particularly seem obsessed with the 1950s sitcom ideal of the suburban nuclear family. But to be honest I have to admit that this warped view of family cuts across ideological lines.

At the same time, Americans are obsessed with the idea of community maybe for the very reason we lack a traditional sense of community. I’ve heard Europeans note that Americans are very social in that we constantly like starting and joining groups. In the Midwest, there is even a popular type of group whose sole purpose is to welcome new people to the community. Over all, Midwesterners have more of a real sense of community because early farming communities were so isolated. Midwestern pioneers, quite differently than Southerners, were highly dependent on their neighbors for survival. My observation is that Southerners tend to base their sense of community on their sense of family rather than the other way around. As a general rule, beyond mere formalities, Southerners (in particular middle to upper class Southerners) aren’t very friendly with their neighbors. For example, when a Midwesterner invites you over for coffee they genuinely mean it, but when a Southerner invites you over for coffee it may just be a formality.

As for myself, I internalized from a young age the Midwestern sense of community and neighborliness. It’s not that I live up to it in my personal behavior, but it does form what feels normal to me. Because of this, my disjointed and rootless sense of the world somehow feels wrong. It seems to me the world shouldn’t be this way… and yet it’s the way my world feels. I’m not as close to my family as I wish I were, but I feel that a disconnection has formed in my family that can’t be bridged. One of my brothers became married and had kids. He ended moving away to a nearby town, but he is busy and is incapable of disentangling himself from his wife and children. My other brother has moved around following his career. He essentially has become like my dad in not settling down. Part of him values family and part of him likes the distance moving around provides. None of us in our family get along perfectly well and I think we all value distance to some extent, but I can’t help wondering if it could have been different. If our parents hadn’t sacrificed family and community for career (we were latchkey kids with both parents working), would our family have been much closer than it is now?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s too late now. My parents made their decisions and the time lost can’t be made up. They had been down South for a couple of decades and only recently moved back to the Midwest. My brothers were at one time all living in the same town as I am now living in, but that hasn’t been the case for a number of years. The brother that has been moving around quite a bit did for a time move back to the area before moving away again just as my parents were moving into town. Even though my parents used to live here and used to have many friends here, they’ve been away too long and my dad in particular left behind the community he felt a part of in South Carolina. When you spend so much time apart in different communities and in entirely different regions of the world, you lose the basic daily experiences on which personal relationships are built. The people my parents know generally aren’t the same people I know. In chasing money and career, why didn’t my parents consider the clear possibility that it would undermine our entire family? People always think there is time later on to develop personal relationships, but then after retirement one realizes that some things once lost can’t be regained.

It pisses me off. I always wanted a family I could rely upon, but on an emotional level (which isn’t rational) I don’t have a sense of trust towards my parents. I don’t fundamentally believe they would necessarily be there for me if things ever went wrong. I understand it isn’t entirely rational. My parents do value family and they are caring people. It’s just that I have this very basic sense of disconnection. I’ve lived in this town longer than anywhere else and I love this town. It’s my home. Still, I don’t feel entirely connected to even this place, to the community that I’m surrounded by. My sense of place is always in the past, in the memories of my childhood in this place. It’s hard to explain. When I moved away after 7th grade, I spent years going over and over my memories of this place. Once I returned, everything had already begun to change. So, my sense of place is only loosely connected to the place itself. My suspicion is that it would be different for someone who lived in the same place their whole life because the place would have changed as they changed. One’s personal changes would be grounded in the changes in one’s sense of place. Once you move away, you can never come home again. So, it’s more than a desire for a stable sense of family. It’s a desire for a stable sense of community, a stable sense of place, a stable sense of personal reality. My whole life I’ve wanted to fit in, wanted to feel like I was accepted, like I belonged. Instead, I feel broken.

Of course, I’m not special. Everyone grows up and everyone loses their childhood, but it seems particularly traumatic for those who have moved around, most particularly if they have certain personality traits. Even so, this sense of malaise seems to be a common factor of modern civilization. From my studies, it’s my understanding that indigenous tribal people don’t share this sense of malaise… not until they’re introduced to modern civilization. We moderns are extremely disconnected from the world around us. Even the person who has never moved is unlikely to have a deep sense of place as was once common when all humans were indigenous.

I noticed the above research was mentioned in an article in The New York Times (Does Moving a Child Create Adult Baggage? By Pamela Paul) which led me to another article:

The Roots of White Anxiety
By Ross Douthat

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

The reason I mention this article is because rural areas represent the last communities that have maintained some semblance of stability, although it’s eroding quickly. These poor, rural whites maintain their communities and their poverty by not moving much. That is what the author of this article didn’t fully comprehend but which some readers made note of in the comments:

dc wrote: “The issue is class, not race, not political affiliation, and certainly not religion.”

Yes, class AND culture… the two being inseparable.

Poor rural people (of any race or religion) are less willing to sacrifice family and community for social advancement in terms of education and career. They’re less willing to play the moving game. But, in a society that doesn’t value the rural culture, such stable cultures aren’t likely to represent the best of society. Loss of family farms and the decline of small towns has caused rural communities to become impoverished and so they have tons of social problems, but these communities once were relatively good places to live and to raise a family… and they still are in some ways. The article does make a point that whites have reason to be worried, paranoid even, about the undermining of this traditional rural culture. Still, no one in particular is to blame. What America is becoming is an almost entirely inevitable result of how America began. It’s noble that these rural folk self-impose (consciously or not) an isolated sense of community. They choose to homeschool their kids and send them to state schools or community colleges. By doing this, they maintain their family ties.

My parents, on the other hand, were willing to make sacrifices that many rural people are unwilling to make and because of it my parents have been more successful in their careers. My parents apparently weren’t contented to just be working class or to otherwise limit their careers to one specific community.

It makes me wonder about the future, my personal future and the future of society. I don’t feel optimistic about my own family and community. My depression and introversion combine in such a way that I lead a fairly isolated life. What really saddens me is that I’m far from unusual. Are people like me merely a sign of what our society is becoming? What is the future of communities and families? As a society, will we ever again collectively value community more than career, family more than success? Will we ever stop building ugly, soul-destroying suburban neighborhoods? Will the warped ideal of the nuclear family ever be brought back into alignment with concrete realities of the world we live in? Is there any hope for modern people to regain the sense of place without which “home” becomes a mere abstraction?