By Michelle Van Loon
The accounts populating the first pages in our Bibles are at the heart of our human experience. Each of us knows the sorrow that comes from being disconnected from God and others.
A few years ago, my husband and I served as foster parents for a series of newborns. We considered opening our home to include older children in the foster system.
I remember reading through a book published by our state featuring the descriptions of foster children waiting for adoption. These descriptions included lots of positive language about each child (“Michael is an affectionate eight-year-old who loves sports and video games”) along with notes about any physical or mental health diagnoses the child had received.
I was struck by the fact that many of the children were being medicated for treatment of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The diagnosis is used to describe a child who consistently has difficulty attending to and completing developmental-stage appropriate tasks like chores or school work. They can be impulsive and are often a bundle of nonstop, unfocused activity.
I told a social worker friend I was a little startled by the high percentage of kids in the foster care system with this diagnosis.
She responded, “It’s hard for grief to hit a moving target.” She went on to explain that by the time a child ends up in foster care, they’ve almost always experienced an incredible amount of disruption, trauma, and loss. The ADHD diagnosis is, for a fair percentage of these children, both a result of their past losses and a coping mechanism for an uncertain present.
In varying degrees, we humans live as moving targets, trying to escape the existential grief of separation from God and others. This reality is at the heart of our wandering.
Even those of us with relatively healthy family stories still experience the painful disconnect that comes from exile from Eden and the miscommunication that replays the Babel story in our lives on a regular basis.
One of the big questions of life is “Who am I?” Some suggest we find the answer to that question via the physical: our appearance, our gender. Some contend that identity resides in our ethnicity, network of relationships, or culture.
Others say our identity is formed by what we do. This includes our work, our earning potential, even our hobbies and passions. Ethics defines identity for yet another group. We are defined by which moral choices we embrace and which we eschew.
Our sense of self takes a beating when we experience failure or face the severing of a meaningful relationship. We are disoriented when we lose our jobs or our kids leave the nest.
Our souls are fragmented by the physical, cultural, economic, and ethical mirrors we use to define ourselves because those mirrors are not accurate. While those externals can provide helpful clues to the question of who we are, they are not reliable reflectors of truth.
We are more than just the sum of our own life experiences. We also carry within us the exile history of our forebears.
I am a Jewish follower of Jesus. My people, the Jews, have been wanderers for a very long time. We’ve lived far from home throughout most of our history, dispersed among the nations of the world yet preserved as a people.
We’ve faced the Inquisition, waves of persecution, expulsion en masse from various countries, the pogroms in Russia, and the Holocaust.
In a 1996 speech, then-President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, said, “I am a wandering Jew who follows in the footsteps of my forebearers. And just as I escort them there and now and then, so do my forebearers accompany me and stand with me here today.”
To live as a member of a diaspora community means you are a part of a people group scattered from their ancient homeland. My people have been imprinted— perhaps all the way down to the cellular level—by generations of terror and trauma, by our diaspora experience.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that scientists have discovered that the effect of one generation’s trauma may well be transmitted genetically to subsequent generations. This relatively new (and somewhat controversial) field of study is called epigenetics, which means, literally, “above the gene.”
Epigenetics researchers note that trauma changes the chemical structure surrounding our DNA. One generation’s experience of suffering can be transmitted genetically to successive generations, heightening and intensifying physiological responses those descendants have to trauma and stress.
The focus of current studies in this area include the descendants of Holocaust survivors and members of the Native American community, which also has a long history of generational trauma.
Not long ago, I heard a hint of the way this generational experience of wandering can impact us.
After my young adult son moved from the Midwest to Colorado, I asked him if he was homesick. Jacob told me he didn’t feel he had the ability to miss a specific place. “I miss my family, but what I know how to do best is to keep moving.”
He had only two homes during his growing up years, but he has generations of diaspora experience wired into his DNA. It’s hard for grief to hit a moving target. He knows how to wander.
We all do. There is something familiar to every human being about the distress of damaged relationships, the disorientation of relocation, and the soul-altering grief of loss.
The things in this world that mark us as wanderers point to our exile from Eden and scattering from Babel. They leave us with a sense of homesickness that not even the coziest home or the most joyous family reunion can ever dispel.
Author Stephen King said, “Homesickness is not always a vague, nostalgic, almost beautiful emotion, although that is somehow the way we always seem to picture it in our mind. It can be a terribly keen blade, not just a sickness in metaphor but in fact as well. It can change the way one looks at the world; the faces one sees in the street look not just indifferent but ugly . . . perhaps even malignant. Homesickness is a real sickness—the ache of the uprooted plant.”
The ache of the uprooted plant is why we wander. We are born seekers. Curiosity and longing are at the core of who we are as human beings.
We see curiosity in the 27,493 questions a day a three-year-old seems to ask. We can tap into longing as we cherish a nostalgic view of the past, hoping against hope that the good ol’ days will salve the ache of our uprooted-ness.
But the ache of the uprooted plant is designed to graft us to the One who made us. Uprooted-ness is an uncomfortable identity and not one most of us would choose for ourselves.
Early church fathers said the state of humankind was that of the homo viator (traveler, pilgrim). We have been born to wander. The questions of where we’re from or where we’re going are clarified by this truth. They become: “Are we moving toward God or wandering away from him?”
It is an unsettling question. Those who crave nostalgia or long to live in bunkers of contentment may not be interested in answering it. But for wanderers, the question is a reminder that exile has a purpose that goes far beyond telling us what our next zip code is to be.
Excerpted from Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of Our Pilgrim Identity by Michelle Van Loon (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.