The Myth of Return: Coming Home Without Going Back

For me, it felt like a deep exhale. Returning to the place I call home, indeed the very city and house in which I was born and grew up, has often brought with it a multitude of insecurities and doubts. Am I giving up? Will I get stuck here? Will I have to settle for some soul-crushing job? Am I starting over? What am I missing? What will others think?

Returning back to one’s origins, to where it all began, is an essential aspect of every rite of passage- of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and of Paulo Coelho’s classic tale, The Alchemist (one of my favorites, for obvious reasons)

Indeed, return might be the most essential, and most difficult part of the whole endeavor itself. A journey is never complete until the hero comes back.

I’ve already written about the best ways to integrate your travel experiences, so I won’t go into that here.

But before we go any further- a bit of Myth. One of my favorite stories of return is from The Odyssey.

Odysseus comes back to his island kingdom of Ithaca after being gone for over ten years, and discovers his home overrun with licentious suitors, all vying for his wife, his land, his Kingdom. With a climax befitting a gruesome TV saga of today, Odysseus, along with his son Telemachus, kill them all. Together, with a bit of old fashioned blood, sweat and more blood, they reclaim the Kingdom.

I resonate with this story not only because of the satisfaction that comes from putting creeper dudes out of their misery, but also because coming home has often felt like stepping into a battle to reclaim and discern some essential parts of myself.

For me, the suitors Odysseus finds loitering about his home are my own doubts, anxieties, and old patters that often can run rampant in my mind during the days and weeks after I return. They don’t pay rent. They don’t create anything. They don’t serve me in the slightest.

These wannabe kings are the “what if’s-” all the false ideas of what my life could or should be- all the “missed opportunities” that are actually Trojan horses of despair. If left to their own devices, they will slowly sabotage every aspect of my life, and my kingdom will be in ruins.

Steven Pressfield, in his well-loved book, The War of Art, calls this dark force “resistance.” Others, such as Julia Cameron in The Artists Way, labels it the “self critic.” Today we might know it as anxiety, or even depression. They might seem scary, but I try to look at these negative thoughts and emotions as Odysseus might have looked on the hapless suitors he found loitering about his kingdom.

Myth teaches us that there’s only one way to deal with guys like these.

Sometimes I’ve thought that the easiest way to escape these thoughts is to just keep traveling. The world is full of exciting things to discover, and at this point I could choose to travel indefinitely and make a pretty functional life of it. Yet like everything, there are drawbacks.

Continuing on this Homeric thread will reveal that not returning means to drift- perhaps forever- in the sea of liminality, continuously awash in the ebbs and flows of transformation, always searching. Every moment is surrendered to the unexpected- totally at the whim of the world, always on the move. I’ve been there, and I loved it.

For some this is exactly the destiny they desire. Some people actually needed to leave the place where they came from in order to find a better life- a deeply archetypal journey in itself. I am grateful this isn’t my story, however.

Honestly, I feel for the unsung heroes who never set their course back towards more familiar shores. Clearly, we will never know their names.

One thing any traveler can tell you is about the variety of interesting people you will meet out in the world. On a Bangkok rooftop bar, overlooking the glimmering city lights, or walking amidst a grove of tamarind trees on a Nicaraguan coast at sunset, I’ve often wondered if some of the wayward souls I’ve met might be these forgotten heroes.

Always looking for the next party, the next girl, the next online business hack- I cant help but feel that some people are simply running away from something. They might even be creating some very worthwhile distractions for themselves. And for some, it truly is their path. Who am I to say.

Yet you inevitably meet a character that serves as a cosmic mirror- a harrowing glimpse into a potential future that scares the living shit out of you.

For me it was that cool expat guy with salt and pepper hair, jaded beyond belief, but still living in this loud, dirty city he hates, and sometimes loves. Aloof and trendy with a cool job, he lives like a king in this foreign land, miles away from the soil which knows him better than he knows himself.

He lives in a hyper-dense metropolis, and yet he is still alone.

You could say its a lifestyle choice, or a trade-off. It might even be the closest thing to true freedom one can achieve. Fine. But I realized that I never wanted to be that guy.

I would rather be a marginally regarded mortal than an unknown demigod.

Rites of passage ceremonies from indigenous cultures across the world, be it the Dagara tribe of West Africa (check out Of Water and the Spirit,) or a Lakota Vision Quest, are completed when the young person is welcomed back into their community as someone who has changed. Sometimes they are given a new name. Sometimes they return with a vision for their life, or for the entire tribe.

Ultimately, the returned person has transformed into someone with a greater, intangible value, knowledge, and responsibility.

This last piece is key: after returning, you have a responsibility to contribute your value and gifts to the wider community. This is probably why some people choose to never return at all- they can’t bear the weight of what will be asked of them.

Traveling is glorious because you have no responsibility. Nobody knows you, you don’t need to be anywhere, at any time, unless you decide to be. All you have to do is take care of yourself, and navigate the circumstances you choose to put yourself in. For some, this is enough. 

My experiences traveling have been profoundly formative, especially considering the variety of crazy shit that I’ve done.

Running from tear gas in Cairo, getting lost in the middle of Tanzania, hitching a ride up the Amazon in a rusty river boat, has all served as a crucible- an alchemical vessel where I could discover my true self and make friends with fear.

Soon, I found a way to use these experiences as a way to serve others. For the past two years, leading gap-year and adventure education journeys around the world, I held more responsibility than I ever thought I was capable of.

Surprisingly, everyone made it out alive.

Now, I finding myself embarking on a different sort of journey- one of creation, of community, and of dreaming into the stories and pathways I want to weave out of my experiences, relationships, and passions.

I know that I will always be a traveler. I will always hear that alluring call to distant shores. But I want to take it a step even further.

Part of assuming greater responsibility means to start offering conscious, transformational travel experiences to all of you- my community, and my tribe.

So the question is, will you heed the call when the time comes?

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