Long years after the last Conestoga wagon, the pioneering spirit lives on. For centuries it has made America great, this restless quest for a better life, and it animates us now more than ever. We may have run out of uncharted territories, but we’re still a land of options and opportunities, and we rush feverishly to every new frontier. Up and outward we move, seeking better things.
The true aim of pioneering, however, is settlement; the pioneering spirit is not mere wanderlust. The goal is to get somewhere and build something – something worth preserving. This creates a tension between the desire to go farther and achieve more, and the desire to stay, build, and beautify. A wagon track dotted by ghost towns is not a cultural achievement. For civilization to occur, some must stay and cultivate, being rooted for years, even generations. And this not just for stability’s sake, but for the glories that come only through long accretion.
Amid the mobility – the mad rush, one might say – of the 21st century, the tension just described is acute. Few of us are locked into any life arrangement; we can easily seek new and better things if something proves unsatisfactory where we are. Often it’s clear that we should do so: we should move to greener pastures. Yet for all the blessings of the fact that we now so easily can, we face a nagging question: how can meaningful relationships with people and place be sustained in the midst of endless pioneering? Relationships fare badly when nothing is nailed down, nothing deeply rooted. When is it important, in the interests of human flourishing, not to take the road to a better life, but to stay and build that life where we stand?
The problem is that, in the abstract, there’s no end to the possibilities of a better life. Things could always be better. Thus the temptation to move on from where I am is perpetually strong. Of course, it never works out exactly right. There are always tradeoffs. When I get to the new place, the new people, the new circumstances, there are always things I miss about the pasture left behind. With that said, though, there are always not just illusory but also very real benefits to be gained by moving on. I can find better things, a better life elsewhere if I look long and hard enough. So when is it time to pioneer, and when is it time to settle?
I think the answer must be that at some point, to experience meaningful relationships with people and place, I must simply commit myself in love to particular people in a particular place; I must love them particularly because in their particularity they are irreplaceable.
Marriage is the best example. In the abstract, can I imagine myself happily married to a number of women? Well, yes. That’s what makes finding the right mate so daunting. At some point, however, I must look at a particular woman and (if she’ll have me) decide my pioneering days are over and I’m hers till death do us part, “forsaking all others.” The idea that flourishing demands my keeping my options open thereafter – since a happier marriage might await me out there somewhere – is a ruinous (though very popular) delusion.
Flourishing requires loving relationships, and loving relationships require commitment – the end of pioneering. The commitment must be free. Coerced commitment is not really commitment to the beloved; it’s just acquiescence under force. But commitment, while free, is real: it’s a self-imposed binding of oneself to a beloved: “This will be my place. These will be my people.”
The same experience of flourishing that comes only after fifty years of faithful marriage will also be experienced after fifty years of faithfulness in a particular place to a particular people. This is not to say the first place one stops should be the same place one finds oneself fifty years later. Obviously, there are times when we realize a community or a location just isn’t a good fit for us, and it’s beneficial to move on. But we should pity the poor soul who, through no providential necessity but simply because of wanderlust, never unpacks his wagon, dismantles it, and builds a house where he plans to play with his grandchildren. Maybe it’s enough for him that he has seen many places and many people; the question is whether he knows any of them deeply, deeply enough to truly love them and be loved in return. The pioneers of old were going somewhere to stay; in this, we moderns would do well to imitate them.