When I was little, I thought there was something romantic and magical about running away.
In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where my parents worked at a large Christian camp, my sisters, other staff members’ kids, and I often wandered off into the woods to play some variation of a runaway game. We spent hours pretending we were running, hiding, and creating a new home. A new world where we would be safe from all the evil adults.
Not that any of the adults in our lives were particularly evil. But we were raised on The Boxcar Children, Annie, and A Little Princess. Those stories captured our imaginations, bringing faraway worlds of risk and survival to life. The kids in those stories braved all odds to pull through on their own, to get away from the “bad guys” who pursued them. And after they made their great escapes, the kids in the pages of our books somehow created homey comfort in beds of moss and within walls of woven sticks.
Later, after my family moved to Iowa when I was ten, to a spot of land surrounded by cornfields, I announced loudly to my parents at least a half dozen times, “I’m running away!”
I’d pack a bag—a change of clothes, fresh underwear, and a water bottle—and stomp out of the house, my mom always handing me a snack or two just before I slammed the door.
I usually did my running in the winter. I’m really not sure why, and in retrospect, it would have been more strategic to run during the long, warm summer days. But in those rebellious moods, thinking critically was the last thing my mind could handle. I was already anxious about resisting my parents’ expectations, already understanding that I was supposed to fit into a pretty narrow box that defined exactly what a good Christian kid should do and say.
I’d traipse over frozen ground, my breath visible in clouds in front of me as I huffed out all the frustration in my little body. I always headed toward the huge empty metal grain bins on the other side of the property we lived on.
Once inside, I’d brush aside the thin layer of corn or soybeans that still littered the floors from the fall harvest and dream about finding parents who would let me do whatever I wanted.
Every time I sat alone on that cold, dusty floor, I talked through pros and cons, reasoning with myself out loud. And every time, I finally decided I did actually like my parents. And they weren’t actually evil.
Maybe, I told myself, I was the bad one because I had abandoned them, abandoned my home.
I usually endured the cold until my ears felt tingly (no annoying hats or earmuffs allowed in my new world of freedom). And eventually, I ran home and through the back door just in time to take my seat at the kitchen table for dinner.
Another runaway attempt thwarted—but the allure remained.
It still remains.
Now in my thirties, I sometimes nurse the hope of something different, something better, all easily within my grasp by just running away from the current dull, white box I’m in. Why not get a fresh start? Drop all the trappings of my ordinary life and suddenly become something new. Someone different and better, with different and better problems.
These days, I mostly imagine dropping everything and moving to a new city. When life gets particularly hard, or when I’m feeling particularly lonely or misunderstood, I’ll start dreaming and googling. Maybe Denver or Minneapolis. Or maybe back to that little town in Arkansas where I went to college. Oh, look at all the things I could afford far from the West Coast. Look at this charming house I could buy for less than I pay for rent in Seattle. I could drive an Audi. I’d be so much cooler there. Everything would be better. Wouldn’t it?
I don’t think I’m alone in these fantasies. I don’t have any data to back this up, but have you ever noticed the only show HGTV ever seems to play anymore is some version of House Hunters? And all those texts I get from friends—maybe you get them too—imagining sharing a condo they found in Puerto Vallarta or dreaming of being able to afford to remodel a chateau in France, like people they stumbled across on social media. They’re clearly thinking the same thing—how nice it would be to escape. We’d all be wearing loose white linen clothing and laughing into the sunset.
Yes, I know. There’s the fantasy of running away, and then there’s real life—when you run out of cheese sticks.
I imagine you can think of moments in your past when you have become a runaway, when you packed your bags and jumped in the car or bought a bus ticket. Maybe your decision was suddenly forced upon you, and you didn’t even have time to pack a bag.
We all run away, whether from our jobs, our hometowns, or our families. We leave marriages, friendships, and church communities.
As a therapist, I often listen to people tell their stories of running away, and I almost always hear them talk about a nagging question echoing in their heads: Is it me? Is there something wrong with me? Am I the bad one for trying to run away?
Just like I thought I must be a bad son for thinking about leaving my parents as a ten-year-old. Just like I was sure I was a bad Christian for thinking about leaving my church when I was in my twenties.
Do you hear those questions echoing in your mind too, with their anxious follow-ups: Is this suffering I’m experiencing really something I deserve? Are they all right, and I’m all wrong? Maybe all I need to do is change myself, to make myself fit in better?
Or, most painfully: What did I do wrong to make it all go bad?
There’s a yearning in those kinds of questions. A yearning for things to go back to normal. Back to what they were. A yearning to return home to a familiar kitchen table and a familiar family around it.
Now, as I write this, it feels as if we’re waking up from a weird dream and seeing our surroundings with new eyes. What was once a place of safety, goodness, and so-called purity—a place we called home—has turned out to be a place of harm.
There were good parts in our past, yes indeed. But almost everyone I know has trauma, whether subtle or overt, lodged in our bodies. When we try to talk about it, someone inevitably shuts us down, yells at us, gaslights us. Someone else inevitably steps in and says we need to repent and get back onto the narrow path to salvation.
It’s confusing, to say the least.
How do we find home when our homes have shapeshifted into sinister haunted houses we don’t recognize? When we have opened our eyes from the dream to find ourselves in a wilderness—but it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually moved?
Some people call this process of realization and questioning of faith deconstruction, and I don’t mind that term.
But I prefer to see myself and others as runaways. Whether we were cast out or have run away of our own volition, we are not going blindly. We are all looking for something.
Most of us runaways have tasted deep goodness, and we want to taste it again. We have told ourselves wonderful stories and spent years imagining how different life could be. We want more; we want better.
A place to rest. A place to call home.
So many people I know are in this in-between, running-away place when it comes to their faith. So many of my clients in my small therapy practice are wrestling with questions that, in one way or another, amount to: How do we find our home again?
If any of what I’ve said so far resonates with you, I want you to hear this: I think we are more than just confused, fearful, or misguided runaways. I think we are holy.
Not holy in that stuffy church pew kind of way. But holy in that we are not settling, not satisfied, but always seeking to transcend. We’re setting ourselves apart, searching for something different and better that reflects our faith instead of twisting or mocking it. And ultimately, we are asking our faith to do more about the violence and pain in the world than simply offering thoughts and prayers for victims.
It usually feels awful and painful to leave everything we know behind. But it becomes easier if we know that in our searching, we’re doing something natural, something quintessentially human, and something that reveals the divine spark in each of us. This quest is something we are all meant to do.
We’re holy runaways.
This is an excerpt from Holy Runaways, Introduction.