Nick Sellen

The Long Journey Home

25 March 2021

I grew up in Bath, then left for Uni. 17 years later I am back. It has always been a base of some kind, my registered address, the place to come “home” to from my transient travels.

But now I’m experimenting to make it my home properly. As an adult. Not just to accept what it has or has not got to offer, but to be the place where I can contribute and shape it for my needs. Where I am not a consumer of the city, but an active participant.

It has been too easy to travel. I can reinvent myself every few years, try a new mode of being, in a new place, with new people. But none of them ever quite worked out as a stable base that can hold me, and that now feels important.

I adapted to the travelling existence as the “lone wolf”. Able to leave when something doesn’t suit me. Dependent on only myself for my core sense of stability.

Well, that was the theory. It has its uses, but also its limitations.

Now, one of the challenge that interests me is to find out where I’m from, the story of my navigation through the physical and social worlds.

As many people do when growing up, I was interested to escape my hometown when I could. The consumerist middle classes. The “compliant citizen” way of being. The terror of navigating social environments that never made sense to me. The world defined by what was on the TV. Talking (and drinking) but never doing.

I found great satisfaction in professional work, in small companies that were tolerant of The Eccentric and a personal, idiosyncratic, and creative way of being. I found I could solve tricky problems and get respect, without conforming to what everyone had told me “professional” people must be like.

But I never really connected with the work environment. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t like them and didn’t feel whole. I started wondering what is it all for, beyond the immediate tasks. I found it hard to, or wasn’t willing to, compartmentalise work from the rest of my life.

I had grown up with plenty of debate around morality and ethics in the family, but it seemed more something you talk about, not actually do. That niggled me, and the famous Gandhi saying has always resonated with me: Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

Whilst at university I wrote a document containing my inner thoughts, which got it’s title from the opening line: “People piss their lives away at universities now” - expressing my discontent at how willing people are to live in the “small” world of drinking in the student bars, etc. (and my fears that I had taken a wrong turn and that there must be some other place that is just right for me).

After living a busy and engaging London life for some years I gave that up and spent most of a year slowly cycling in the UK, swimming in rivers, camping wild, exploring whatever I could find, talking to people. Reading a lot. Thinking a lot. That was a big shift in my life, it never quite went back to how it was before.

I still perpetually felt an outsider, I sort of admired the more radical activist types I encountered, who seemed self-assured and confident in their path. But never quite felt that could be me. I was an imposter. Just a cautious slightly awkward lonesome middle class guy.

I switched to a new place. Berlin. It’s a fine place to be to express yourself, to try a different way, I really appreciated the way the city could be my own, I could experience it in my own way, and others could too. For me it was swimming in lakes and running at night. Sometimes running at night to swim in the lakes.

Then I realised community was the direction I wanted to take now. I had actually long thought about the value of community, but had no idea what it meant or how I would be involved. What would it mean now? Tech for good? Volunteering? Effective altruism?

I responded to a call for developers for a new utopian software platform and got exposed to and immersed in grassroots organising, nomadic travelling, food waste, communal living, hitchhiking, dumpster diving, moneyfree / cost minimisation, transparency, open source development, nonviolent communication, etc… That was another big life shift.

But this also revealed the parts of me that had been shadowed by economic privilege and the lonesome self before. When trying to get more of my needs met through community, I got overwhelmed. Thoughts around autism have hovered around me for much of my life, but I dug in deeper and it helped me to understand the intense mental states I found myself in. I didn’t find a lasting place for me in those communities.

I also had my first deep romantic relationship, and jumped into that too, forgetting my boundaries. Through much pain and sadness I didn’t find a place for me there either.

My journey has turned inward since then. I’ve been encountering fascinating concepts I wish I had known about decades earlier. About the impacts of the patriarchy on us, about male shame and grandiosity, about self-compassion, responsibility, good boundaries, and meditation practises for exploring complex emotions and their physical embodiments. That exploring deserves many blog posts of its own.

I found the topic that unites much these experiences is care. I came to realise that care needs to be at the centre of much of what we do. To root ourselves in our own emotional reality and then that of others. To care for ourselves, each other, and the wider ecosystem of life. And then trust that what comes out of that will be good (it will!).

So, coming back to my hometown is at once a physical, emotional and symbolic step. To come back to myself. To sit at the traffic lights here and look up through the bedroom window where I grew up and make eye contact with the person who inhabits that space now. Or to cycle to the school where much psychological suffering took place many years ago. To face the same passive middle class mindsets that would prefer to complain than act. To come back with more awareness of race, class, gender, neurotype, and other diversities and wonder how to integrate these new awarenesses with this place.

I am hoping I have not taken on too much. It’s a lot of topics at once. And a lot of powerful memories and triggers live here. It would be easier to pick another place, and enjoy the excitement of a new place. But that would feel hollow to me now, probably exhausting, and knowing that it would eventually lead me back to these topics within myself.

I have never been able to find a group/movements/project/relationship that was a place for me. I always had to be my own “rock”, and maybe that’s the right way after all, to take responsiblity for our inner core. But this chasm between my individualism and the community life is the chasm I am looking to bridge. Although “rocks” and “bridges” are the wrong metaphors too. They are rigid and fragile, balanced precariously above an abyss. This is more about ecosystems. Resilient and fluid networks of life.

Wish me luck!

I don't have comments enabled here, but you are welcome to contact me directly. View the homepage for different ways to do that.