Surprised by Homesickness and Doing Re-entry Anyway
My dad could have walked with that baby all summer long. After he met her for the first time when we stepped off the plane in June, there was hardly a day that went by where I didn’t see her little blonde head bobbing over his shoulder as he walked the length of the yard to his garden. It was like he was trying to suffuse some kind of impenetrable memory into her bones, because we both know the future will be fraught with distance and forgetting. It blessed me to tears at times to watch him take her, and it made the days leading up to our leaving again feel like a dead weight around my shoulders.
But we’ve been doing the leaving and distance thing for ten years! Shouldn’t it be getting easier? After all this time living overseas, shouldn’t we be used to the goodbyes? You’d think that as the years stacked up in favor of this foreign side of the globe, my homesickness would wither and fade as we root ourselves more and more in in our foreign home. Like a well-worn path you know by heart and have covered with your own set of memories, you would think this other home would become more dear to us and the old place wouldn’t hold our hearts so strongly.
And it’s true, in many ways, returning to our apartment seven flights up after a trip back to our home country is always a comforting and even welcome relief. It’s where our family has grown and lived for most of our kid’s lives, it’s where our life’s work is lived out of and where we labor in prayer and sleep and over meals and with new and old friends who are our family away from family. So coming back home to this country we’ve grown to love for all its familiar foreignness is a conflicted comfort. We love being here. We hate leaving there.
Still, this summer, as we spent weeks with family, it was harder to rip ourselves away for new reasons. We noticed that the relationships mean more as we all grow older. The kid’s friendships with their cousins grow deeper and their memories more conscious and lasting. The adults have harder, real-life stuff they are going through and being there for each other feels more important. The mortality of our parents sets in—and we feel the years with them like a time clock. These things grow more important and seem like more of a sacrifice than perhaps they did even when we first left, young and fresh and with barely a baby on our hips.
Coming back to the country we serve in is different too. Friendships in our foreign-home are fewer and farther between. It’s just a reality of expat life. The longer you stay, the more alone you feel. Friends you dove deep with at the beginning have left. And then the next set of friends. And the next. The makeup of your community is always in transition, and it makes your life feel fragmented. There’s no one in your overseas life with whom you have a trajectory of shared history, and family and old friends back home seem that much more precious.
So as much as I want to feel stronger and more able to flip back and forth from one home to another, the reality is that these longings for “back home”, though not as constant as that first year, are more acute than ever. They don’t hit me as much in our day to day life. Most of the time (when I’m not watching my dad with the baby) I’m fine. But when it happens, like any time we have to get back on the plane, the floodgates open, and I teeter on that walk of faith again.
Though I’m still learning what it means to walk through a growing homesickness even as we mature in our life overseas, there are a few things I’ve found helpful that I continue to come back to as those waves of longing, sadness, or doubt hit. They may not be profound, or even helpful to everyone, but I've often found they do something for me.
1. Read an old biography. I usually start a week or two before we head back. Sometimes it carries me through those first days back overseas, when things are still hard. Several years ago it was Corrie Ten Boom in The Hiding Place who walked me through the heart struggle of returning. I can still hear her father whispering to her “Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie.” This year it was Hudson Taylor who spurred me on and inspired me to press in to the very presence of Christ and to pray more boldly and faithfully. Seeing how these men and women of the faith have walked a path of trust and endurance far ahead of me always gives me gems to ponder and some sort of encouragement to keep going.
2. Engage again. As much as I may not feel like it, diving in to life and people, even the new people as an exercise of will and faith inevitably produces fruit. Sometimes a new friend is found, but that's not so much the goal as an occasional gift. Even though it's easier to hunker down after years of being the newbie greeter, reaching out to others is a way to walk in the truth of the proverb, “he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”
3. See it differently. Though I may cringe at the return of smells and humidity, I know if I choose to look with an artful eye, I may end up seeing this place in its own light and even beauty. That includes people too. I often find that changing my outlook through creating art helps my heart follow.
4. Pray in a new way. Facetime or skype can be a sweet and magical gift when you’re missing people, and as willing as I am to engage in it, I find that the most important face I need to seek is the Father in prayer. Time and again, that secret closet of time with Him brings the most comfort and clarity. In those weeks leading up to and following re-entry to your overseas life, you can pray for renewed vision, steadfastness, and willingness to walk on perhaps new paths of engagement.
The other day I read two statements Jesus makes about peace and while at first they seemed to disagree with each other, the truth is they say more to us about forging ahead when it's hard than we realize.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword... whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me..." (Matt. 10). And then, "My peace I give to you. Not as the world give do I give to you. " (John 14).
Our loves and lives are so easily disordered. When we put wrong things first, there is no peace. And yet, he offers us peace of a different kind. Not in the way the world would offer it, which is compelling and perhaps even telling... uncertainty and trepidation and even roadblocks don't necessarily mean He is not still leading you on the way.
Making your way back with uncertainty is not a bad place to be. In fact, it seems like just the place where Jesus might be found.