Why is ‘settling down’ considered the pinnacle of human achievement?
Out of all the questions I get asked about my transient lifestyle, one of the most common would have to be ‘so when are you going to settle down?’
The answer I’d like to give is something like this: ‘When I’m lying in a casket six feet under the ground.’ (Or more accurately for an atheist, ‘when my ashes have turned to dust’.)
The response I usually give in practice is less theatrical. ‘Good question… maybe in a few years… I honestly don’t know.’
The main reason I struggle with this subject is that when I look at people who have ‘settled down’, the lives they lead don’t exactly entice me to join them in any great rush. Although everyone is different, those who have settled down share a number of key characteristics: working nine-to-five jobs for forty years plus, paying off enormous mortgages for twenty years plus, living in the one house over an entire lifetime. Then there’s the endless DIY and renovation projects (sigh), as well as going through all the day-to-day stuff of a relationship: dinner parties, television, in-laws, Sunday newspapers, monthly trips to Ikea.
I can already hear the cries of outrage. Surely settling down isn’t as humdrum as all that, otherwise why would so many people worship it as the land of milk and honey. What about love, family, community and building strong relationships with the people around you? Aren’t these worthwhile goals to aspire towards? Absolutely, and in fact, I’m going to devote an entire section below to the many benefits of a settled lifestyle.
But what if these hopes and dreams don’t appeal to you personally? Or what if they do, but you’d still like to lead a more authentic life? Not everybody wants to raise children. Not everybody wants routine and comfort. Not everybody wants a small town existence. People can and do squeeze as much variety and sparkle out of life as possible, often with partners and children as company. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
In fact, I’ll readily confess that I’m quite jealous of those people who can travel the world with a special someone for company. Solo independent travel is great, but I’d like to try the non-solo version at some stage.
Settling down is a curious subject. It combines many aspects of life into a single overarching theme. Some people might even view settling as a kind of grocery list. To succeed in the game of life, you must tick off all the familiar items one-by-one: university, career, marriage, house, children, retirement. If you prefer to play the game a little more strictly – rather like the ‘Game of Life’ board game itself – you must complete each item at the ‘correct’ point in time and in the culturally accepted order (university before marriage, marriage before children, blah blah blah). Only once you are fully settled – having collected more money than your opponents – can you consider yourself happy and successful.
Depending on how many other Running Mutty posts you’ve read before this one, you may have already come across one of the constituent subjects, such as nine-to-five work or house ownership. But now it’s time to step back and study the canvas at large. Settling down is rarely questioned and examined as a lifestyle choice of its own. This of course means it’s the perfect subject for the Running Mutty and his restless fangs.
A. Stable and Secure
Settling down is wonderful for anyone who has specific goals in life, wanting to establish a stable and secure platform on which to achieve those goals. This person sees family or career or sporting success as their primary concrn and wants to make certain that nothing else gets in the way. This person also tends to be a bit of an organiser and a planner, scheduling their life to such a degree that would excite a military drill sergeant.
As someone who is most definitely not settled down, I look at my settled friends and often feel jealous of what they can achieve. Top of the list is their ability to develop strong and lasting relationships. By relationships, I am not just talking about finding a ‘partner’ (a big enough challenge on its own). Rather, I’m more interested in building a solid network of friends and ‘influencers’. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to ring up a friend out-of-the-blue and organise an immediate catch-up or ask for help with moving some furniture. These sorts of friends don’t exist in my life. Or perhaps they do exist, but we don’t spend enough in each other’s company to take advantage of the benefits.
A common misconception about the roaming lifestyle is that ‘oh that’s OK, you’ll make new friends as you go along’. Well yes and no. You will certainly meet loads of new people, but each interaction requires you to start from ‘Go’ and recount the highlights of your life from scratch, like some form of travelling salesperson. This can get tiring and repetitive very quickly, especially if you’re a more introverted person. Many of the people you encounter ‘on the road’ might be good company for a night out, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to have an intimate conversation with them.
One of the beautiful things about old friends is that you don’t have to go through all that ‘getting to know each other’ tat, and can just talk about anything you like, silly or serious. Or perhaps not talk at all, simply enjoying the silence of each other’s company. This is difficult to do with people you’ve just met for the first time. Talking is seen as a major requirement for getting to know someone. He won’t talk to me , so I don’t think he’s very friendly.
Legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle defined true friendship as one that’s built on a core foundation of spending a decent amount of time together. By this logic, those who boast of having hundreds of friends are lying simply because it is physically impossible to spend the required amount of time with so many people. While this has interesting ramifications in the world of social media, the main point that interests us now is that the more transient you are, the more you will struggle to spend enough time to build those deeper connections. This is possibly why we form better friendships as young people. We simply have more time available.
Apart from missing out with friendship, the vagrant lifestyle often gives you the constant feeling of missing out on fun and sociable events, such as team sports, community festivals and further education. If you tend to live more spontaneously – not worrying where you’ll be next month – it’s difficult to commit to a concert or a festival in two months’ time.
I’ve often wanted to enrol in an short-term class – such as one related to foreign languages, photography and even acting – but those classes tend to be evening courses that run over a semester of ten weeks, with one class held per week. Unless you don’t mind paying for a course and missing out half the lessons – as well as missing out on the cumulative effect of what education can deliver – it’s not a satisfying way to further one’s skills.
B. Fun and Free (and Frivolous?)
But of course, I wouldn’t be living a transient lifestyle if I didn’t welcome the more serious perks on offer.
For a start, the transient lifestyle provides a more relaxed pace of life simply because you’re less fixated with the calendar. I don’t ‘plan’ in the traditional sense. While I do occasionally use the calendar on my iPhone, it’s mainly for things like tax returns or car insurance.
The lack of planning means I live on a month-to-month basis, deciding to do things as they come to light. I greatly appreciate the freedom this offers, meaning I can usually attend a party or an event or a work conference at fairly short notice. Some people I know require six months notice (written in triplicate) before anything can be arranged with them. As someone who detests routine, the time liberation on offer appeals to me greatly.
Since I’m perpetually curious – never getting bored of exploration – I don’t have any real concept of ‘home sweet home’. The global nomad tends to see the entire world as home. As a result, I don’t find myself getting overly attached to any one place in particular.
Settling down implies an element of putting down roots, but where exactly should those roots be put down? Even though I grew up in a certain area of Australia – and my parents still live in that area – I haven’t lived there myself for almost twenty years. I can’t profess to having any great love of the place either. I’m not sure if it even qualifies as ‘home’.
Because the global nomad is constantly on the move, it’s often hard to draw a line between ‘travel’ and ‘non-travel’. When I do find myself in a new location, I’m not so interested in doing the usual tourist stuff. I prefer to walk and roam (and run) the streets of the world. I very much relate to the ‘flaneur’, the person who heads out for a stroll, not really caring where he or she ends up. In my experience, a lot of people don’t get this type of walking. For them, a walk (or any form of transport) is just a way to get from point A to point B. The journey is seen as an inconvenience, never a pleasure.
I feel I would miss out on this aimless joy if I was to become settled. I would be forced to do more of the ‘settling’ things that don’t give me any joy at all. You can no longer go for just a walk, unless it has ‘purpose’. An aimless walk would be considered a waste of time. When you’re settled, there’s pressure to tow the party line, to be ‘responsible’. If my settled friends are anything to go by, being responsible also requires you to engage in regular consumeristic binges, sometimes spending entire weekends in the shops. When you factor in hefty costs such as these, living as a global nomad is not as expensive as you might think.
Those who shun normal life to lead a more independent existence are often accused of being frivolous and irresponsible, frittering away their lives in pointless, Instagram-friendly activity. While there are undoubtedly some who fall into this category – although perhaps not as many as you might think – many global nomads lead fascinating and meaningful lives doing volunteer work, scientific research, or even more ‘normal’ jobs (after all, teachers, nurses and accountants are needed all over the world). Far from being irresponsible, these positions are often more challenging and pressured than your average nine-to-five role.
Without getting into specifics, ‘helping African children get an education’ isn’t a million miles away from my own job. I don’t think there’s anything frivolous about this, is there?
C. The Compromise
If you’re expecting me to end this post with a miracle solution – something that combines the flexibility of transient living along with the stability of a settled life – then I’m afraid I don’t have a single, all-encompassing answer.
The best I can offer is some form of life that offers you a fifty/fifty split. For six months of the year, you can live a reasonably settled existence, working a normal job and saving up as much money as you can. Then for the next six months of the year you can travel the world, giving a cheery wave goodbye to the routine and the daily commutes. I’m well aware this is very much ‘pie in the sky’ though as it’s dependent on a variety of factors, many of which may be outside of your control: housing availability, schooling for children, finding a job that is amenable to the transient lifestyle, holding the right sort of passport.
Even if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s a brave person who’s willing to put in the effort to discover a more authentic life. It is so easy to do nothing at all. But once you see life as a blank piece of paper, the possibilities are endless. It’s your choice alone what to do: write, sketch, make origami swans, or crumple it up and throw it in the bin. Can you have a settled, rock-solid foundation but still be spontaneous and free-spirited? Can you have a transitory lifestyle but still maintain close friendships? If you do decide it’s worth exploring an alternative path, at least you can say you tried.
Perhaps the best way to approach the challenge is to not see it as a challenge at all. Rather, we can simply admire the diversity of human existence. We are lucky if we get to choose our preferred Game of Life. Not everybody has that choice. At many points throughout human history, you were either fully ‘settled’ (because you were trapped inside some fascist hellhole) or you were fully nomadic (because you were left to wander the planet as ‘stateless’). A lack of freedom punctures and deflates the essence of human experience.
So perhaps that’s the real take-home message from the ‘settling down’ debate. We should thank our lucky stars that we’re even debating the subject in the first place.
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