Disney, Wendell Berry, and the Forgotten Yearning for Home

“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy repeats in her beloved line from The Wizard of Oz.

Upon reflection, most of our most well-loved childhood films and stories contain a familiar story line: our favorite heroes and heroines go off into the world, are challenged and transformed by their adventures, and return home. Some of the most obvious examples examples come from Disney including Mulan, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Hercules. These Disney stories, as well as other classics of film and literature from our younger days like The Wizard of Oz or even Homer’s Odyssey tell of children going out into the world only to find that home is where they were meant to be all along.

The political-cultural landscape of today reads quite differently, especially for recent college graduates. Though we still go off to find adventure and become heroes—often in the realms of international service, social justice, or personal growth and fulfillment—we no longer finish the storylines we were taught in childhood. We go out without coming home.

The renowned American author, cultural critic, and farmer Wendell Berry once wrote that, “the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

Is this not the heroic journey? Arduous, humbling, and joyful but ultimately a true discovery of home?

In one of his novels, he describes “one of the characteristic diseases of the twentieth century” as “the suspicion that [people]would be greatly improved if they were somewhere else.”

Berry’s words ring true to the younger generations, especially for those who are from more humble or rural origins. College is often thought of as a jumping off point, a point of departure into the great wide world, a preparation for and taste of real adventure.

Our heroic roles are as future politicians controlling Washington, successful businessmen making deals in the skyscrapers towering above the streets of New York, or musicians signing career-starting record deals in Los Angeles. We dream of becoming “Mulans”, except we fight the evils of social injustice on the streets of Atlanta or Portland. We envision ourselves as half-deities completing the twelve Herculean tasks required to be placed among the stars of consultants in Chicago. We see our future in ruby red shoes in a place far away, a place somewhere else, a place not like home.

Of course there is nothing particularly wrong with dreaming of our own heroic storylines. After all, our well-loved protagonists did go out in the world to be challenged and transformed. What has been lost, however, is our ability to understand and emulate the end of these stories.

Our sense of yearning for home has been disrupted and weakened by our attachment to transience and the slow fragmentation of our communities.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America that “the strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science: they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.”

Prof. Patrick Deneen, when commenting on this passage in his book Why Liberalism Failed, wrote that “[Tocqueville] stressed that it was the nearness and immediacy of the township that made its citizens more likely to care and take an active interest not only in their own fates but in the shared fates of their fellow citizens. … Tocqueville would have regarded a citizenry that was oblivious to local self-governance, but which instead directed all its attention and energy to the machinations of a distant national power, not as the culmination of democracy but as its betrayal.”

What is crucial for maintaining democracy, for maintaining America, therefore, is that citizens seriously reflect on the idea of returning home. Political battles will rage at the national level, and this is important and healthy for a nation, but this nation is only as strong as its small local communities. “We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities,” Berry once wrote.

What is required of us—of the college students who have journeyed far from home to discover who we are and what we want our storylines to look like whether that be in private practice or public service—is that we evaluate what it means to leave our home communities behind. When we refuse to return home, what exactly we are leaving behind? After all, as Berry wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.” Our destinies will be shaped by our pasts, so we would do well to learn and understand the places that formed us.

We must ask ourselves whether our world and our families would be better served from afar. We should not be ashamed to return home, recognizing instead that we are emulating our greatest heroes.

Perhaps Berry put it best when he wrote, “When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.”

Soren is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies pursuing a minor in Constitutional Studies. She enjoys playing the upright bass in the Notre Dame Symphony, pursuing truth, and writing candid, unpopular columns. You can reach her at mhansen3@nd.edu.