Some years ago, I attended a conference in DC at which E. J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post, discussed the recent work of Robert Putnam, eminent Harvard political scientist. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, was a fascinating study of the correlation between the degree of involvement in social groups and civic organizations (PTA, Knights of Columbus or youth sports) and the quality of life in a given community. Putnam called this community involvement “social capital”, and lays out the strong correlation between a community’s social capital and where its citizens fall on something like a “happiness index”. Areas where people enjoyed the highest quality of life and prosperity were populated by those who got out of their fragmented personal spheres, and threw themselves into social organizations and activities. Such folks built true communities, and did not merely exist as part of a population cluster. The title of Putnam’s work alluded to his findings that, though the number of bowlers in America had increased in the previous 20 years, membership in bowling leagues had fallen. Putnam argues that such statistics do not bode well for the overall fabric of society. I didn’t know much about Putnam or his work at the time, and I thought there was only a weak correlation between Dionne, Putnam and the theme of the conference, which was business ethics. Still, Dionne’s remarks stayed with me.
I was thinking about Putnam’s work as our family passed our first anniversary here in Maryland. We were no longer ‘new’ here, no longer ‘just back from Germany’. And I suppose that the longer you’re living in an area, the more you come to think of it as home. But the nature of what ‘home’ is remains complex, especially for those of us who are moving so frequently. I think that military living, with its built-in 2-4 year turnover churn, would be an interesting case study on the nature of ‘home’ for sociologists or social psychologists. So I got to thinking about what ‘home’ is to the average military family. Whenever you meet someone new on post, you’ll inevitably ask “Where are you from?”, which contains a vaguely implied question “Where is home?” The concept of ‘home’ is never really an easy one to answer: is home where you were born? Where you grew up or spent the longest time as a kid? Where you currently live? Where your parents live? When you attend a high school or college homecoming, have you really come home? When you hear the phrase ‘Home for the Holidays’, where do your thoughts take you? Ask a servicemember where ‘home’ is, and you might get one of a dozen different interpretations of the question. Of course, there are always the familiar bromides, “Home is where the heart is” and “Home is where you hang your hat.” Certainly, my kids aren’t weighed down by the gravity of such questions. Even if we’re in a hotel for just a couple of days, they’ll ask, after a day of errands or activities, when we are going “home”. Taking up the question of “Where (or what) is ‘home’?” might lead to a powerful examination of where your true devotions and priorities are. Maybe even who you are.
One simple theme that stayed with me from Dionne’s presentation was the strong correlation of quality of life in a community and whether or not neighbors knew each other’s names. Extending that further, I also think that the idea of ‘home’ might have a great deal to do with how strong your social base is in a given place, and to what degree you contribute to the ‘social capital’ of your duty station or neighborhood. How many people you know in a certain area might go a long way toward how much you ‘feel at home’. Now, I admit to watching too many hours of Cheers growing up, but I think its theme song is correct in emphasizing that "you want to go where everybody knows your name". Given that, I think there’s a powerful lesson to be taken from Putnam’s work, and trying to build our own version of home here in the DC area.
When you're part of a military family, engaging new people all the time is an inevitability. It’s part of the landscape of military life. I would like to think that, as a part of a military family, each of us has a pretty healthy ability to adapt to new situations and environments. We naturally sympathize with families who have just PCSed to our area, and try to be, if not a good friend, at least a good ambassador to those who have just arrived. But beyond just getting settled and having mail sent to a new address, I think that fashioning something that resembles our idealized version of ‘home’ requires that we put ourselves out there, meet the neighbors, and if you’re up for it, coach your kid’s soccer team (believe me, no experience required). Though I’m not necessarily advocating that we all join bowling leagues, I think if we want to bridge the gap between ‘where we’re stationed’ and ‘home’, we might start by extending ourselves beyond the skeletal crew of people we see every day. And even though there is the temptation to think that, because any one of us might be be moving in a year or two, it wouldn’t be worth it to try to build friendships that will have an undoubtedly short shelf life. That might be true. But I think that we all have an innate need to align ourselves with our environment, to be part of a harmonious network…to be, wherever we are, home. Putnam’s work goes a long way toward answering the question ‘where is home?’ It’s where everybody knows your name.