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I’ve been thinking a lot about community these days, along with the saying “you can never go home again”.

Now that I’ve escaped the corporate world and am working for myself full-time, that saying has new meaning. It doesn’t simply refer to the home towns we leave behind, but to all the little towns we inhabit during our daily lives: our workplaces and anywhere else we build a community, whether that’s a church, a neighborhood association, or–in my case–a martial arts dojo.

No matter how close the bonds I’ve formed with co-workers, as soon as one of us leaves, it’s like a curtain comes down between us. We may still talk, have lunch, and exchange emails, but we’re on different sides now. We have become us (the people still at the job) and them (the people who left). With this new relationship comes a certain lack of honesty. Let’s face it: a lot of co-worker camaraderie revolves around ranting about the workplace, even if you like your job in general. Once you leave, you’ll find people may still enjoy crying on your shoulder. You can commiserate, but for the first time ever, you can’t add fuel to the fire. If you do, you’ll see that curtain slam down pretty fast, because you’re not “one of us” anymore. You’re one of them, and what are you doing talking smack about someone else’s workplace? Are you saying they were dumb to stay? That you’re somehow better because you left? Talk about a can of worms.

You may also find that, even if you stay in touch with quite a few people, you’ll get the rose-colored version of everything. This is the same version you used to give outsiders when they asked how the job was going. The frustrating, hellish project becomes “challenging and interesting”. The endless hours of overtime become “it’s busy, but we’re coping well”. If they can’t paint a rosy picture, they probably won’t talk about it all. Or if they do, they’d rather be talking about something else. (Who could blame them?)

At first you may think, “hey, who do they think they’re fooling? I worked there! I know what’s going on!” But, you see, everyone has a vested interest in proving that they’re doing just fine without you. After all, everyone is replaceable. It’s human nature for people to move on, even if they like you and wish you well. You’re just not a part of their world anymore. And that was your choice, don’t forget.

It’s this very curtain, this division of us and them, that can make it difficult to go home again. I’ve found this is true even with martial arts dojos. For months or years, you spend every day training with the same people. Bonds are formed. It’s a shared obsession. Even when you leave the gym and go out for dinner with one another, the conversation is consumed by things that happened in training: who takes sparring a little too seriously, how difficult a certain class was, who’s still recovering from a nasty injury.

Then someone leaves the fold. Maybe they got burnt out…or got married and had a child. Or went to university, or decided to train at a different gym. It happens. They probably still love martial arts and share the same interests as their former training partners. But the curtain comes down. They’re on the outside, looking in. If they drop by the dojo for a visit, they’ll be surprised at all the new faces–there’s so many people they don’t know now. When did that happen? 

I’m thinking about this a lot lately as I consider returning to my dojo. Kickboxing is so good for my physical and mental well-being that I’m not ready to let it go just yet. There are many parallels between leaving a dojo and leaving an office, though I didn’t see it at the time. Both are tightly-knit communities, and once you leave, it really isn’t easy to return. It takes guts to walk back in that door.

You can’t go home again. And if you do, it’s never really the same as when you left. But then again, neither are you.

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