03/19/2012 01:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Home Before Any Place

Capsized. You wake with a start to find your face pressed against the ceiling. The flotsam of your present life drifting aimlessly past you. Below: your kicking legs, unfulfilled promises tethered to you like an anchor, and the murky darkness beneath. Women and children first, you mutter. The dedication of a generation bred for self-sacrifice and service to our parent's hopes. Sooner or later, every man goes down with the ship. But still, we cling to the sinking crow's nest and call to the horizon with our eyes. Women and children first. The band plays on, and the sharks circle with disinterest.

For months now, you've watched the world tilt drunkenly around your axis. A gradual skewing of all that you once thought was real. Now, with the salty aftertaste of untruths smeared across the lips of a once-bad liar who turned out to be a quick study, you reassure your reflection: Of course, I know exactly what I'm doing. You nod, so he nods. And you both agree that you feel much better.

Ad naseum, we tell people what they want to hear, until we start to subscribe to the wiles of our own inventions. Until we forget which tomorrow we used to believe in. Until we climb out of bed having lost track of who we were when we climbed in. In one of your dreams, a younger-you bowls you over in the street. "Have we met?" he asks, with eyes squinting. "No," you say over your shoulder, as you brush past him. "I'm sure I would remember meeting someone so naive." Dumbfounded, he goes about his business of doing whatever it was that used to make you happy, while you just go to work.

The silhouette of an elegantly tamed savage. The sermon of a backsliding snake-handler. The routine of a well-run rat race. In a rush to the corner office, we merge lanes at break-relationship speed and careen against the walls of our respective mazes. The sound of dreams screeching to a halt quickly enough to see sparks fly. It's not a landing all of us will walk away from. Not with heads held-high, anyway. Twice a month, you remember why it's all worth it. While every night in-between, you ask yourself exactly when it was that your happiness became worth so little?

But as you sink further, and your feet graze the bottom, you realize: this is where the page must turn.

The way out is the way through. As it was for your father, and as it likely will be for your son when he later asks the same questions. There may not be an obvious why, but there will always be an important who. We do it for the women, and children, first. We do it for the ones we come home to. We do it because we owe them the best version of ourselves that we can offer. The ships will sink. The sharks will circle. But in the arms of our loved ones, there will always be a shoreline. A home before any place.

Photography: David Evan McDowell + Suit: Ikire Jones + Locale: Reading Viaduct, Philadelphia