The first time I ran away from home, I came back when I heard the ice cream truck. The plan in my head seemed solid. I would hike into the stubby mountain range behind our house, follow the ridge west, then crisscross a patchwork of farmland until I got to the railroad tracks. Once I hopped on a freight train, anything was possible. I would fend for myself and make my own rules. I would wander across the country, wild and free on the open road. There was nothing but a wide open world that went on and on forever—a world with unlimited horseplay and no ill-fitting hand-me-downs. But I was barely out of the backyard when I heard the abrasive, penetrating treble of “Turkey in the Straw” and my priorities violently rearranged themselves. Apparently more than anything in the world, I wanted a Choco Taco.
I would try running again, but these attempts were just as pathetic. On one occasion, it looked like it might rain so I called the whole thing off. Another time the pants that I had planned to run away in were being laundered. One way or another, I was always confounded by the logistics of it all.
In hindsight, I think I was looking for reasons not to run. Maybe my heart knew that in the dead of night, reality would displace my fantasy. I didn’t actually have a clue how to live off the land. I was scared. More than anything, I knew that whatever I was running from would follow me.
This yearning to run never really goes away, does it? Every once in a while, you get out of bed and life just feels off. Sometimes the reasons are obvious—an infantile or overbearing coworker, relationships that require hard work, your terribly dull career, or your terribly dull boss. Other times, all you have is a faint impression that’s impossible to pinpoint—you know the one— but if you could run away and find something other than what you have, it would be just fine probably.
Maybe what we’re really trying to escape, even if we don’t know it, is the jumble of emotions that come with being a human—the boredom, frustration, uncertainty, incompetence, anguish, shame, or that unrelenting notion that who you are as a person isn’t quite good enough. But we’re afraid that if we don’t stand our ground and these rogue feelings march forward, we’ll be crushed by crippling anxiety and come unglued as our shattered psyche collapses into a pile of smoldering rubble.
Most people plod on and do better by staying busy and trying harder. Some people run. Either way, we’ll carry this collection of unaddressed turmoil with us. We might cloak it with ambition or tequila or cake, but all the world’s emotional pain simply gets passed around until it finds someone brave enough to hold it. Ultimately, we’ll bombard the people around us with a distortion of our neglected angst.
But if this game of emotional hot potato should grow old and the time comes to tend to your feelings, you might realize that you can just let them be themselves and they’ll generally leave on their own. Of course they’re absolutely terrifying at first, and sure, they seem to follow you no matter how far you run, but they’re just your standard-issue demon. All they want is a good chase. When you stop running, they lose interest.
It’s generally that simple, but never that easy. And it’s one of the most courageous things a person could ever do. I wasn’t that brave as a kid. I just knew I had to get away. But even if I had found myself thousands of miles from my hometown, my insecurities would have still been within and my emotional obstacles still directly in front of me. It took decades before this began piercing my thick, thick skull. With each passing year though, I’m better equipped to deal with the crazy experience of being a person. I can override the urge to run, and just let things be as they are. I can stay with my emotions, give them space and let them run their course. I can talk to a friend, listen to music or go for a walk. And if the storm within is vicious and especially tenacious, I can pack a suitcase, break my lease, and hop on a train to anywhere but here.