Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reflections on an itinerant life

Maybe tomorrow, I'll wanna settle down,
Until tomorrow, I'll just keep movin' on. . .

That song played during the closing credits of The Littlest Hobo, during the show's run on CTV. The premise of the show was that an unnamed dog without an owner would move from town to town, helping people, and then disappear, trotting down a forest trail or hopping aboard a rail car as the credits played, only to show up again next week in a new location for another adventure. Intelligent, fierce, and kindhearted, the Littlest Hobo's virtue hinged on his lack of connection to any place or person. The selflessness of his actions was underscored by the fact that he would never stay to appreciate the gratitude of the people he had helped.

He was a dog, but the archetype is a common one for humans - the travelling sage, the wandering warrior, the itinerant scholar. There is something romantic about being homeless by choice, about roaming around under the open sky. Such characters in history and in fiction are often presented as somehow virtuous - rarely are they presented as evil. From the historical Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, to Marvel Comics' Wolverine character, the wanderer is cast as the the protagonist, and the popular discussion of them consists largely of the extollment of his virtues.

For the past 2 months, I have been trying this lifestyle on for size - moving through five cities, staying in each just long enough to get comfortable before I leave again - and I have to say that the popular conception of it is fictional. There is no great moral virtue in it, and the knowledge one gains is morally neutral - without interpretation and reflection, without time to catch one's breath, the information remains as raw data. It does not translate into wisdom.

This is not to say that travelling can't be fun, or that the adventure of it is worthless, but it isn't a sustainable way to live. Eventually the wanderer has to settle down and find a community. Like everything else, the value of this "community" only becomes clear when you don't have it. What good is virtue if it only comes and goes in the lives of the people you meet? What exactly can you accomplish without a sustained presence?

The obvious rejoinder is: A lot - to pull someone from a burning building, for instance, doesn't require twenty years, and it certainly does make a difference in their life. It does not, however, happen on a daily basis, and if you spend your life waiting for buildings around you to burn, you might be dead before you managed to make any positive contribution. Most of us lack The Littlest Hobo's knack for stumbling over people in distress.

The itinerant life titillates the soul and stimulates the mind, but in a sedentary world I have not found it to provide much by way of spiritual nourishment over the long term, because this requires a community of people to collaborate with, contribute to, and learn from. This something that is hard to sustain "on the road," even in the electronic age.

I have enjoyed these two months immensely, and I intend to do this again someday, but at the moment I can't wait for the opportunity to stay in one place again. Tomorrow, I intend to settle down.

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