The Value of Displacement

Article, March/April 2019, Place and Displacement, Poetry

“I stand upon my desk to remind [myself] that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” – John Keating, Dead Poets Society

We human beings are creatures of rhythm and contrast, but we think statically. 

We are used to questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What do you do?” as if one thing will become the answer for perpetuity. This type of thinking shapes, and is shaped, by static images of who we are. But these static images don’t fit our real lives. At least they shouldn’t. 

An appropriate question for a real human being the next time you see one might be, “What are the rhythms in your life?” 

When we think statically we tend to live statically, and we find this very unsatisfying. We need rhythm and contrast in order to make meaning of the world around us. Imagine Christmas every day, or no more weekends ever. This is the kind of world we unknowingly begin to create when static paradigms hold sway over our imaginations. Inch by inch, work creeps into leisure, and leisure into work. Everything begins to feel the same, and we find ourselves with little to look forward to. 


Still from Dead Poets Society

While implications abound, the relevance of this human tendency to our sense of place can easily escape notice. 

Place is often one of our last considerations as we piece together the puzzles of our lives. Home is wherever we end up once we’ve figured out work, money, and bills, etc. 

We may dream of breaking up the monotony with a big vacation or international trip, and as we turn the key for our morning commute cry aloud with Tennyson’s Ulysses:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move. 
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, 
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use! 
As though to breathe were life!

But until then, the same-old-same-old must prevail. Here John Keating of Dead Poets Society has wisdom for us: we must constantly look at things in a different way. What’s more, we must remind ourselves to do so. In short, we need to be displaced. 

This is true for the poet and pedestrian alike. Only by zooming out can we see what has been all around us, and only by seeing it can we love and appreciate it (or reject and reform it). For a great example of this zoomed-out perspective, I recommend reading The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

I grew up in a small town most kids couldn’t wait to leave. They wanted to go see the big wide world. But many of those who did get out discovered what a special place that town is, and eventually moved back with a new appreciation for it. Almost every good story requires some kind of leaving and returning, and although often framed in involuntary and uncomfortable circumstances, this zooming out satisfies our deepest nature each time we do it or encounter it.

I’ve found that my place-rhythm is about two or three months. After that amount of time, my feet begin to itch, and wanderlust sets in. Without noticing it, I start to fail to appreciate fully what I have and where I am. It feels small and cramped, and the outside world big and inviting. Displacement is the only cure, and the bigger the dose the better. Ideally, it should even get a little uncomfortable. 

Not everyone can just up and leave on a whim. But there are many different ways we can intentionally displace ourselves. Go Google “microadventure” (and then turn off your computer for the weekend). Take a different way home from work and see what you come across. Build a blanket fort in your own living room, and spend the night in it with a book you’ve wanted to start (or The Little Prince!). 


Illustration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I have made a habit of spending one Saturday a month ideally somewhere up high on a mountain top, or on a large body of water where I can see a long distance. It’s amazing how this zooms me out mentally and emotionally from all that normally surrounds me.

Again, I’m speaking equally to poets and everyone else. I would argue there is very little difference between those two groups; we are all essentially striving to make meaning of the world around us. What sets the poet or artist apart from the rest is the degree to which he or she intentionally practices and expresses that meaning-making.

Once we experience being displaced, voluntarily or involuntarily, we begin once again to long for place—for “home.” Our human rhythm calls us back to belonging and the familiar. The farther that pendulum swings, the more powerful and satisfying each reversal. And when we return, home is different, because we ourselves have been changed. Literature professor and story expert Joseph Campbell calls this the “return with the elixir,” the 12th and final stage of the hero’s journey. This process is how the poet achieves his art, the goal of which is to see the familiar with new eyes. Consider how Robert Service expresses this phenomenon in the third stanza of his poem, “The Joy of Little Things”:

It’s good the great green earth to roam,
Where sights of awe the soul inspire;
But oh, it’s best, the coming home,
The crackle of one’s own hearth-fire!
You’ve hob-nobbed with the solemn Past
You’ve seen the pageantry of kings;
Yet oh, how sweet to gain at last
The peace and rest of Little Things!

Perhaps you’re counted with the Great;
You strain and strive with mighty men;
Your hand is on the helm of State;
Colossus-like you stride . . . and then
There comes a pause, a shining hour,
A dog that leaps, a hand that clings:
O Titan, turn from pomp and power;
Give all your heart to Little Things.

Go couch you childwise in the grass,
Believing it’s some jungle strange,
Where mighty monsters peer and pass,
Where beetles roam and spiders range.
‘Mid gloom and gleam of leaf and blade,
What dragons rasp their painted wings!
O magic world of shine and shade!
O beauty land of Little Things!

I sometimes wonder, after all,
Amid this tangled web of fate,
If what is great may not be small,
And what is small may not be great.
So wondering I go my way,
Yet in my heart contentment sings . . .
O may I ever see, I pray,
God’s grace and love in Little Things.

So give to me, I only beg,
A little roof to call my own,
A little cider in the keg,
A little meat upon the bone;
A little garden by the sea,
A little boat that dips and swings . . .
Take wealth, take fame, but leave to me,
O Lord of Life, just Little Things. 

The danger we all face is allowing the pendulum of place and displacement to become stuck at its nadir with no momentum in either direction. Without place, we cannot be displaced. Without a true sense of home, we have nothing to leave or long for, nowhere to return. We float without reference, neither questing nor resting. We merely are, and this is a terrible “no-place.” Healthy contrast becomes impossible.


The Phantom Tollbooth — Milo stuck in the Doldrums, where nothing ever happens

One of the most beautiful descriptions of home I have heard was crafted by George Eliot in her novel, Daniel Deronda.

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give … that early home a familiar, unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.”

As Eliot describes, home draws its power as a reference point in life from its unmistakable difference and definiteness. Paradoxically, the more we have a place we truly belong, the more we will receive from the displacement of the questing process. Invest in belonging. And then get out and wander all the more boldly.


Graham Shea lives in Quincy, CA and enjoys freelance writing, outdoor adventures, and many different artistic media. He holds a BA in journalism from Pepperdine University, and an MPhil in theology from the University of Cambridge.

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