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Homesickness: What the Experts Say

Gordon Clanton, a professor of sociology at San Diego State University and author of “Jealousy,” a book about a misunderstood element in romance and love:

“Mobility is something we value because, usually, we’re going toward something we want, something we prize--a better job, more money, a more varied environment. We have, however, a cost to be paid. You cannot have mobility without rootlessness. It can be positive or negative.

“Rootlessness can mean fleeing a place with small-town mores. A lot of people in the South, where I’m from, were glad to flee those homes, to get away from what I saw as crippling racism.

“If able to articulate these, we can make a strong case for moving--getting out, and away. Fleeing. The trade-offs are loss of family, familiarity, a stable environment. Usually, when you’re moving, you’re younger. Thus, you can take those for granted. Later in life, they stand out as big monuments--of considerably more value.

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“A cost of mobility is people not forming bonds, not engaging in community life, of feeling and being estranged. In ‘Habits of the Hearts,’ a fine new book that has earned its good reviews, the authors conclude that individualism has grown cancerous. That, in the pursuit of self-interest, people just quit investing in community. When that stops, commitment as a whole just dies. And when that happens, society as a whole becomes decadent.

“California is a place many people come to. It may have the most extreme cases of what these (authors) are talking about. In a sense, ours is a throwaway society. Our homes and our neighborhoods are almost throwaway items. Suburbia changes the way many of us feel about ‘home.’ I doubt that the people moving into North City West (a new North County housing development) are saying, ‘I’ve got to take good care of this house--my kids are going to live here.’ That view of home has completely changed.”

On combating homesickness and loneliness, he said, “Certain things we can’t control--like the weather. But we can take compensatory steps--we can put on a raincoat. If we join something not directly connected to self-interest, we benefit the community and ourselves.”

Clanton recently joined The City Club of San Diego. He’s a member of the Center for Studies of the Person in La Jolla, founded by psychologist and author Carl Rogers. He “dabbles” in Del Mar politics, mainly by supporting pro-environment, anti-development candidates. He also writes a column for the Del Mar Citizen.

Fred Davis, a sociology professor at UC San Diego and author of “Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia”:

“Nostalgia is literally homesickness. The term ‘nostalgia’ was concocted by Johannes Hofer, a 17th-Century Swiss physician. Hofer had observed a common phenomenon among Swiss mercenary soldiers--while fighting in other countries, they were ravaged by tremendous homesickness. In the more extreme cases, homesickness led to anorexia and even suicide. Hofer figured it must be a real disease, so he invented one and called it nostalgia.

“The word comes from the Greek root nostos , for home, and algia , for sickness. He published his finding in 1688. The word resided in military psychiatry, really until the early part of this century. Then it began to lose its medical moorings, until now people barely even link it to homesickness.

“For a while, some thought homesickness or nostalgia had to do with lesions in the brain. Why were these poor Swiss soldiers feeling it? Were they addled, having to come from such a high altitude? Were their inner ears disturbed from having heard the clanging of so many cowbells?

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“Now we think of nostalgia as attachment to the past. I see it as a response to an identity being threatened. This can come with large numbers of people flooding to someplace new. They can lose sight of who they are, where they’re from. Nostalgia serves to link them to the past--to their own sense of self. It gives one the feeling of continuance. It can be a sensitive and useful response.

“I think nostalgia lost its original meaning, because who really has a home anymore? In a highly mobile society, we seem less tied up with places and persons. I believe that’s the reason for so many aberrations--institutions like computer dating or ‘swingles’ bars.

“Nostalgia has political connotations. The left condemns Reagan for his ‘Bringing America Back’ slogan--for his reverence of nostalgia. But many on the left wax nostalgically about the ‘60s. It’s their idea of America’s golden years.

“It’s amusing--or maybe frightening--that throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s nostalgia was seen as more of a private phenomenon; now people think of it largely in terms of media. People actually miss sports teams or movies or periods of television. That was almost unheard-of before the last 20 years.”

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A native New Yorker who later moved to San Francisco, Davis misses each of those places. He has lived in San Diego since 1975, but finds that it doesn’t have the theater of Manhattan, much less the charm of San Francisco. He lectures on nostalgia in two classes at UCSD--"Collective Behavior” and “The Sociology of Leisure.”


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