For the past 18 months, there’s been no such thing as “coming home” because we’ve already been there. I didn’t realize until I recently started commuting again how much I missed that feeling.
Rounding the corner to your street and noticeably feeling your pulse slow down. Unlocking the front door and hearing the sounds of a toddler jostling around the living room. Peeling off the artifacts of the day — your purse, your keys, your shoes, your mask — and putting them decidedly in their places.
There’s a ceremony in returning home at the end of the day, or at least there used to be. It symbolized the end of one mode, the shedding off of one persona (perhaps, high-powered executive, food truck operator, or middle-school teacher) to the adoption of another. Parent. Partner. Roommate. Neighbor.
Love it or hate it, the commute always represented something more than simply about the logistics of getting from one place to another. It gave us important transition time, gently easing us out of one operating mode and into the next. And even though it left a lot to be desired, even though we swore at other drivers, got pushed in the subway, and showed up with droplets of sweat on our foreheads and armpits even before our workday officially began.
Over time, we learned how to make it work for us, with podcasts, with music, or with exercise. Whether conscious or not, we did a lot of something else on our commutes too — we took time to think. We panicked about our first meeting of the day, we stressed about our family dinner plans. We looked at our calendars to mentally prepare for the day ahead or reminded ourselves of that email we should have sent last night.
And on the way home, we reflected. We left the office with our heads packed with business problems and stressful scenarios, unpacking them bit by bit as we let our emotions unfurl. We replayed that one conversation over and over until we finally came up with the right thing to say to that person the following day. We made up our minds about decisions. We drew a line in the sand. And sometimes, on that rare and perfect intersection on the subway platform changing from the R train to the 2 train at Times Square, we got the spark of an idea from something unexpected on our way.
I don’t know about you, but I find it much harder to find time to really think through business approaches and contemplate new possibilities when I close my laptop at 5 and have a toddler bouncing on my lap at 5:01 p.m.
There’s an important role of gear-shifting in human psychology that helps us lift out of our own messiness and muck to look at a new set of problems through a new lens. The more we can effectively do this — that is, see the edges of one problem set and leave them for another — we can start to identify patterns, trends, and associations that we might not otherwise notice. We might recognize that parenting is a lot like managing. That acting has a lot in common with sales. But when we don’t have clear lines, when everything we do, from changing the litter box to triaging customer service requests floats in the same soup day after day, it’s a lot harder to lift out of our own silos. Our worlds become myopic. We lose our creative spark. I’d even argue it makes us a little less human and a little more robotic. We lose that oh-so-cunningly clever way of pulling lessons and stories from one life area and apply them into another.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the commute that made us all feel like robots may actually help us connect the dots of our own humanity a little bit better.
Even if we’re not commuting, there are certainly substitutes that can help us reclaim that feeling. Long walks in the park. Vigorous exercise. Maybe even taking a few minutes midday to do a jigsaw puzzle.
But there’s no replacing the feeling of familiarity and unguarded safety you get when you step back through your own front door, pull on your favorite sweater, and settle deep into the coziest corner of your couch. Your cat at your feed, your perky plants on their shelves, your kitchen stocked full of food, your uncorked bottle of red wine, your baby’s tiny shoes lined up next to yours, your hastily-abandoned coffee cup still in the sink.
Let’s not forget: Sometimes, we we have to leave our homes to remember how nice it can be to come back to them.
Also published on Medium.