Sunday, July 3, 2016


It struck me recently as I was reading The Existential Café, Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book on the story of existentialism and the writers who propounded the post-war philosophy , that our lives are very largely defined by leaving.

We leave the womb, mostly unhappily, and a few years later, still small and unsure of ourselves, we leave home and go to school. Sometimes during our childhood, our family moves, and we leave behind countries, or neighborhoods, friendships, relatives, the familiarity of time and place and pavement. We relearn the basics and familiarize ourselves with a new environment, even as we  get ready to leave again.

Much later, in times of war, we leave to fight in conflicts. Some return; others leave permanently.

In peace time, we get married and often find ourselves leaving our family of origin, as well as friends who are still single. They no longer fit within our new framework of a life shared, at least initially, with a single person. We now aspire, most of us, to close-knit blood relations. The lack of attachments of our remaining single friends is suspect in light of our new lifestyle. The friends may become vaguely threatening, even as we leave again. Marriage often implies relocation to better jobs, more affordable venues, different cultures and comfortable climates.  

The marriage does not work out. We get divorced. We leave our mates, and our acquaintances decide which of the spouse they will stay close to. It’s hard to be friends with both, it sets up conflicts and difficulties. Our friends leave.

Our children go off on their own; our parents do so as well. They retire to new locations and make new friends.

And so it goes, until the final inevitable departure. We watch friends and family leave us for good, with the full knowledge that we will in turn do so as well.  

Leaving is situations unresolved, conversations uncompleted, words unsaid that needed airing. Whether we leave or are left, there is almost always a sense of unfinished business.  We realize that the people who have come to us during our lives could only do so by leaving others. It’s a strange merry-go-round that we come to know too well and are never totally comfortable riding.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things cyange, the more they stay the same.  And no, no existentialist uttered those words. They were written by a French journalist almost a half-century before the movement began.

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