The topic of my Masters thesis is a feeling that is associated with existential anxiety and often in both psychology and philosophy considered an inevitable part of human life: not feeling at home in the world. I’ll skip elaborating on the theories behind that feeling here because I’ve been writing about it all summer and felt it for 95% of my adult life, but instead would like to talk a little bit about its opposite, because even in an anxiety-filled world it is possible to feel a different way.
Not feeling at home in the world, or the uncanny feeling, is that weird moment we all get sometimes when something familiar looks odd, existence itself feels suddenly absurd or even a word you repeat ceases to look like a real word. Looking at familiar things too closely reveals how strange and unfamiliar they in fact are, and accodring to philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, this feeling discloses some fundamental information about the world. In this mood you distance yourself from the everyday mode where you take things for granted. It is possibly only in this mode that you can truly become aware of the wrongs and injustices of the world. After sufficient education and reflection it might switch on somewhat permanently, as though you’re stuck in an unending Brechtian verfremdungseffekt-drama and can’t feel involved with anything anymore because at every turn you wonder why things are as they are and why you feel like a complete outsider in the world and why nobody else seems to see how strange everything is. Recently a family member told me I must’ve become wiser after a year of postgrad study of philosophy, and I regretted to tell them I’d only become a little more cynical, and aware of how much there is in the world that I don’t understand, and how utterly I lack any practical skills because at the end of the day being able to discuss the implications of affective ontological reality isn’t going to pay the rent.
Yet despite all this, I felt the opposite of the uncanny feeling just the other day. Uncanny literally means unhomely, so its opposite would be “homely” although this word must be considered through a more complex set of associations than just feeling that you are comfortable and in a safe, familiar place. The homely feeling is one where life feels meaningful, but not in the sense that there is a set goal that makes life meaningful, as when one in bad faith believes that career progress, maximum financial profit, home ownership, marriage and children are predetermined goals everyone should strive for and are the meaning of life universally. In contrast, in the homely feeling, you are perfectly aware that the world is what it is, with its finitudes, uncertainties, evils and shortcomings, and that you are free to create your own life to the extent based on your possibilities and circumstances, and knowing all this still feel that being alive is in itself worthwhile. For some lucky it might be a permanent state of mind, while for most of us it’s a fleeting but wonderful feeling often prompted by a good experience, good company, good food and wine.
Personally, I’ve only ever had a proper homely feeling in the sense described above when I’ve been travelling. Just last Friday I felt that way when I was all by myself in a small town in Italy where nobody spoke English, and I was learning my way around a new place in a language I barely spoke. The novelty of the experience and the language barrier would, you might think, act as an imaginary wall between my self and the world, and make me feel like a stranger in a strange town, but it turned out to be the opposite. I’ve rarely felt that level of connection with other people, the world and my sense of self. Every human interaction I had on Friday, despite the limited ability to express myself, was genuine and warm. I felt that the people I met saw me as the kind of person I want to see myself as, and was perfectly comfortable in my skin the way I haven’t been in a very long time. Eventually this comfort dissolved my usual excessive self-awareness, and I stopped worrying about how I come across and focused instead on other people and the world around me, and learnt and noticed things on a whole different level than is possible when stuck inside your own head. How strange that I would feel so at home in a place that was as different from my official place of residence as is possible to be.
Yet it’s not that suprising, come to think of it. The uncanny feeling is paradoxical because you often get that overwhelmingly unfamiliar feeling about things that are already familiar, perhaps too much so. Maybe places aren’t meant to be familiar. My Nordic ancestors would travel around in search of food, shelter and warmer weather, and throughout human history it has been the norm for tribes to move around. It is strange and sad that in recent years possessiveness of one’s claimed living space and fear of difference has led to such resistance of even the simple human courtesy of giving refuge to people whose home is at war. I believe the presence of foreigners in a place one considers home causes anxiety in many because they expect a certain spatial reality to remain familiar but the presence of people Othered by cultural norms uncannily reminds that nothing is or can stay familiar. Only change is real. Movement of peoples and the chaning of the world is the only truth about homeliness, and the homely feeling must be found by other means than by controlling one’s own physical location.
When things make more sense on the move, I believe it’s residue of a nomadic ancestry, a past when things were simpler on the whole and the constant becoming of finite and time-bound existence was mirrored in the unending physical relocation through space. It may no longer be possible to fully return to this, but to accept that location is as transient as time and then to live through the anxiety that this realisation causes is a good step to take on the road to true existential freedom.