The Restless Ones
A brief meditation on restlessness, roots, and pondering one's nature
Howdy from fancy London town!
I’ve been quiet for about a month due to travel and a mental health project I’m working on (details to come out soon ;D).
However, I managed to plop down in a cozy cafe in central London and emancipate these words from my mind. They’ve been pent up, waiting for my fingers to release them, and today I get to do just that.
Speaking of emancipation, I recently re-read John Steinbeck’s excellent novel Travels With Charley in Search of America. It’s an exploration of 1960s America by car along with his best fur friend, Charley. During the 3-month journey, Steinbeck contemplates the evolving nature of America, its cities and our connection to the natural world, social and political issues like segregation in the South, and the idiosyncrasies of the American people.
One particular section caught my attention. It reinvigorated a question I’ve encountered many times over the last decade during my inward-seeking journey, yet remains internally unresolved.
What forces shaped me into the man I am today? Was I made this way? Or was I born to be a restless wanderer? Perhaps a dash of both, but in what proportion?
“Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home…”
Here I am alone (but not lonely) in London, exploring myself and this country, while many people my age have laid down their roots. Their feet are dug into stable ground while mine search for new soil. Yet this isn’t new for me.
Since I first traveled internationally at 25, I’ve maintained my desire to explore. Sometimes to exotic lands and other times to the outer boundaries of my physical abilities.
Before that, I was an explorer relative to most people in my small blue-collar hometown. At age 17, I shot off to a summer program at Georgetown University to study biological sciences. It was scary for me, as it was the first time I had flown and the first time I had been out of California, yet I made my way to the east coast alone. It sounds trivial now, yet it might as well have been Tatooine.
Before that, prior to my consciousness entering this world, my grandparents were the restless ones. My grandfather fled West from Texas, as did my grandmother from Kansas, eventually landing in the Westernmost state of California. And before them, who knows? The knowledge of my ancestry ends there. It’s impossible for me to say just how far back my lineal fidgetiness goes. It seems likely to extend back to the beginnings of organized humanity, as it does with many of us.
“Our remote ancestors followed the game, moved with the food supply, and fled from evil weather, from ice and the changing seasons. Then after millennia beyond thinking, they domesticated some animals so that they lived with their food supply. Then of necessity, they followed the grass that fed their flocks in endless wanderings. Only when agriculture came into practice — and that’s not very long ago in terms of the whole history — did a place achieve meaning and value, and permanence.”
It was “evil weather” during the Dust Bowl that brought my grandparents west, and agriculture set them in place as farmers.
For eons, our ancestors have been playing a global game of redlight greenlight, moving in fits and starts. A few generations on the go, fleeing to a more prosperous territory as the world demanded of them, followed by relative sedentariness. Some decided to stay, others chose to go.
Perhaps this time, it’s my turn to be one of the restless ones.
I contemplate the question of nature versus nurture, attempting to disentangle what was done to me versus what I am because, to quote Socrates (or maybe it was Plato), “An unexamined life is not worth living.” That’s how it feels to me, at least.
As exciting as it may be to travel on the physical plane, the distance of land on earth is a minor stain compared to the infinite vastness in our minds. It turns out that I crave exploration of inner space as much as I episodically adventure into outer space. It’s that invisible force to seek that led me to my writing.
No matter which way I cut it, I’m an explorer. I feel the compulsion to search.
Some psychologists and friends may tell me I’m running away from something. It could be love. Perhaps commitment? Or I’m seeking the rush that comes from stepping into the unknown? I can’t say for sure. Those are possibilities. Still, I can’t ignore the tug I feel inside to search and keep searching for something. It seems to me that it’s just as likely that the spirit of my restless ancestors remains alive inside of me. That spirit drove my grandparents to carve out a new home for themselves in a land far from their roots.
I may be keeping the torch burning.
“In this view we are a restless species with a very short history of roots, and those not widely distributed. Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else.”
I used to judge myself ceaselessly for not “settling down yet” like most adults I’m close to. I judged myself as broken compared to them because they fit a norm that I did not. But their way of living always felt foreign to me. Some of my psychological suffering faded when I stopped resisting my nature — when I studied and accepted what I am.
After deep examination, I’ve concluded that becoming what one is is the proper definition of becoming an adult.
Transforming from an infant to a child is the process of conforming to a set of norms given to you by the adults in the world. It’s the gradual process of becoming less of an individual and more of a part of the crowd. Becoming an adult is a reversal of that. Transforming from a child to an adult is the process of shedding societal expectations that encourage or require conformity. “Growing up” is to become the unique individual you were before the world told you who to be.
"The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you."
— Carl Jung.
It took me a while to learn this, but the more I resonate with it, the more I accept the restless energy within me. I am one of the restless ones.
Questions for you
What parts of yourself are you rejecting? What are you afraid of becoming due to others’ expectations of you? Who do you believe you are? Do you know who you were before the world told you who to be?
You must answer these questions if a restless sense of unfulfillment is alive in you. Turn toward those questions, and you will turn toward yourself.
What inspires me right now
Meet John Muir. He was a restless one. He emigrated to the United States from Scotland along with his family. Later, he became known as “John of the Mountains” and is considered one of the fathers of the National Parks in America.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes of his.
“One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature — inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.”