Loneliness : The Underbelly of a Life Overseas {Book Club}

“I’ve Never Really Been Anyone’s Girl,” Mary said in The Secret Garden.

When women move to the field I let them know loneliness is going to be a part of their stories in ways it wasn’t before. It doesn’t matter if they are single or married, life overseas will include loneliness. Single women might sit in their apartments thinking, “If I was married I wouldn’t feel lonely.” And married women might hear their single teammates and friends going out to eat and think, “I’m stuck here with my family. I really wish I could go out for some girl time.” Starting life over and establishing relationships takes time. We get that, right? We’re willing to pay the price.

What I hadn’t expected was the amount of rotation involved in relationships. Between language school, home assignments, God leading folks to other opportunities either on the field or in their passport countries … relational stability isn’t a given for us, is it?

I’ve been struck by how many lonely people are in this book: Mary, Colin, Mr. Craven, and Ben Weatherstaff!


“Since she had been living in other people’s houses and had had no Ayah, she had begun to feel lonely and to think queer thoughts which were new to her. She had begun to wonder why she had never seemed to belong to anyone even when her father and mother had been alive. Other children seemed to belong to their fathers and mothers, but she had never seemed to really be anyone’s little girl. She had had servants, and food and clothes, but no one had taken any notice of her.”


Mistress Mary went a step nearer to the robin and looked at him very hard.

“I’m lonely,” she said.

She had not known before that this was one of the things which made her feel sour and cross. She seemed to find it out when the robin looked at her and she looked at the robin.


(Mary and Martha were chatting and Mary had just said, “I wish I had a little spade” and Martha wondered why.)

“This is such a big lonely place,” she said slowly, as if she were turning matters over in her mind. “The house is lonely, and the park is lonely, and the gardens are lonely. So many places seem shut up. I never did many things in India, but there were more people to look at – natives and soldiers marching by – and sometimes bands playing, any my Ayah told me stories. There is no one to talk to here except you and Ben Weatherstaff. And you have to do your work and Ben Weatherstaff won’t speak to me often. I thought if I had a little spade I could dig somewhere as he does, and I might make a little garden if he would give me some seeds.”


Mary began to find her way out of this season of loneliness through friendships, changing herself, and finding something purposeful to do. There you have it, the simple formula for combating loneliness. HA! While I think they are wise principles, they aren’t meant to be a formula. If you do X you will get Y. And that’s what can be so tricky about loneliness – right? What has your experience with loneliness been like overseas?  And for those who have been at this for a while, what seasons and ebbs and flows have you seen in this area? What’s helped you (all of you)?

As for this book, any thoughts on the characters and lonliness? How might the authors person story impacted her portrayal of this theme?

We’re half way through the book! Don’t you wish you could have seen what the garden looked like the first time Mary entered? And Dickon!! What a nice lad. And Colin and his fits. UGH!? Anyone else speaking with more of an accent? =)?


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  1. Beth June 10, 2014

    I have become more aware of loneliness in my life when I return to the places where I “should” feel connected, but find out that I really don’t have those connections any more, at least not to the depth that would fill that ache of loneliness.  A sense of loss of what used to be but is now gone brings an ache – a loneliness for what was.  Or from another angle, the realization of how I have changed and the effort to relate seems so great that it becomes easier to retreat into a place of loneliness.

    Thinking about loneliness due to a LOSS of what was as opposed to loneliness due to a LACK that never was.  Pondering … would Mary have felt more or less lonely arriving in England if she had had closer relationships with her parents and the Indian national – if she had a deeper sense of the loss of those relationships had they been better?  Mary does not seem to really know the LOSS of friendship so much as the LACK of friendship.  What do you think?  Am I making any sense?

    On another more positive note, having something purposeful to do has helped me tremendously during those times of loneliness.

    1. Brittany June 11, 2014

      I so get it, and I agree.  I think the pain is a little less acute when you don’t really know what you are missing!  I definitely think Mary’s loneliness would have been worse had she had actual relationships with people in India.  Obviously, her heart would crave relationships purely because of the way God made us, but I think her “loneliness” was mostly boredom at first.  I feel like it wasn’t until she started softening and realizing pleasant feelings that she started longing for relationship.  I don’t know, just a thought.

      1. Amy Young June 11, 2014

        Brittany, having borrowed the word ‘boredom’ from you … I agree!! I think Mary must have been rather a sharp little girl who was bored! Thanks for teasing that point!

    2. Amy Young June 11, 2014

      Beth  you ARE making sense! (I’m on a keyboard that is unfamiliar to me, so my short comment is more related to how much I’ve had to retype up to this point :)). I like the distinction you make between LACK and LOSS. I agree that at the beginning Mary was more bored and understimulated and underconnected as opposed to really sensing a loss of much.  And I too can relate to loneliness being more acute when I have thought that I’d have a connection and then it wasn’t. Thanks for these thoughts!

  2. Elizabeth June 10, 2014

    “Rotation in relationships.” Goodness, yes! I get tired of it, and yes, it can definitely make me feel Alone. So interesting how you say loneliness comes for everybody — single, married, all of us. I have been realizing that this week. It’s a loneliness that will almost last forever — for we are forever changed by living overseas, so even when we return, we are different, and that can lead to loneliness too. The weight of that sort of descended upon me this week. Not sure I really liked the realization but it did bring me back to God.

    1. Amy Young June 11, 2014

      Elizabeth — my what a week you’ve had :). I think the Lord is gracious and doesn’t let us know all that’s in store when we first get the call or even years into it. The hard part for me is that I now have DEAR friends … all over. But not that many in my daily life right now. And to spend time with folks (though very much worth it) takes thought, coordination and money :). Modern technology helps us all to stay in contact, but it’s not the same as being in daily life together. Forever changed, yes. I feel forever enriched, but also elements of forever fragmented :).

      1. Jenny June 15, 2014

        That last sentence makes so much sense- forever enriched but forever fragmented!

  3. Catherine June 10, 2014

    I live in a city where the foreign community is very small and so the inevitable goodbyes can be particularly painful as we wonder whether there will be anyone left here at all. In ten years here I’ve seen a lot of foreign team-mates leave, and sometimes this has felt lonely, but I have found investing in my local friends has been hugely helpful. There may be few foreigners – but there are a few million Chinese people to be friends with! I’ve been learning to see spending time with local people not just as work or ministry or whatever but as an opportunity to love and laugh and be loved and be known. And they mostly don’t leave!

    1. Amy Young June 11, 2014

      Catherine, excellent point! I can also see the ways in which the work one  is doing may lead to more or less rotation in foreign friends. If one is working with students, that can lead to exhaustion over the long haul inn relationships too. If one can get into the more “permanent”/stable parts of society. Glad you’ve found some relational stability 🙂

    2. Jenny June 15, 2014

      I am with you- the international community in my city is basically non- existent. I so cherish my relationships with nationals here who are stable and not in my target audience but there are so many days when it feels so hard to take that step to interact with them, when I just don’t have the energy to attempt to communicate in my second language something that they have no box for anyhow.

      For me half the battle with loneliness is not letting my mind go to places of fantasy when I’m lonely but to draw near to Christ. Have you guys found anything helpful in those moments?

  4. LeAnn June 10, 2014

    Have really enjoyed this series using The Secret Garden, a treasured tale for many years, but one I had never thought of in this context – makes it all the dearer.

    I have found my loneliness has been the catalyst to press deeper into Abba’s friendship/kinship. After 20+ years here, my friendship circle includes more precious local friends than it does expatriates, which is partly due to the inevitable continual shifting of people.

    For me the place I feel loneliness more keenly is being Stateside and largely being asked the same (dull) 3 or 4 questions over and over.

    1. Amy Young June 11, 2014

      LeAnn, oh yes to the well meaning (I’m in a generous mood so going with well meaning)  folks who don’t realize we’ve been asked the same questions over and over. This year I have wearied of being asked the same questions and my answers not meeting the expected/ acceptable answers. I sometimes just go with the answer they expect if I don’t know them well or don’t feel like going round and round with someone I don’t know well as \I try to explain myself to them 🙂

  5. Brittany June 11, 2014

    For the first time in the 8 months since moving overseas I am realizing my loneliness and my heart aches as I’m reading this book.  I can very much identify with Mary.  I feel like I lost everything to move to such a strange place.  I’ve connected with one or two people, but they just don’t have time for me on a regular basis (like Martha).  I long for relationships with nationals, but they don’t seem to care to know me, and really, our location right now is temporary and so I don’t blame people for not wanting to invest in me…I’ll be gone in a year anyway.  And those back home that I thought for sure would stay connected with me seem to have dropped of the face of my planet.  In that way, I feel like I identify with Colin a bit too. Those people are still alive, yet they seem to have forgotten, or just can’t be bothered with dealing with things like time differences.  In some ways, I want to do something just to get their attention and be like, “hey, remember me?  I used to be your best friend!  Do you plan on responding to my emails anytime soon?”

    But oh, how faithful our loving God is!  And He’s worth it.  I’ve drawn so much closer to Him in this isolation.  I don’t now how people could handle this loneliness without Him.

    By the way, you are right about married people struggling with this too.  My husband is my best friend and we’ve got two awesome kids.  That doesn’t keep me from loneliness.  He’s home SO much because we are just in language school and so he’s not out of the house too much.  But there’s something about needing someone outside of your family!

    1. Amy Young June 11, 2014

      Brittany, I think you are in a hard phase of the transition to this life overseas! The honeymoon may be fading  and the depth of relationships you’ve had isn’t there quite yet. God is worth it … and he does meet us! I remember aching from having the same conversations over and over as I was in the building stage. I just longed to be KNOWN. I found Psalm 139 to be helpful after five years in one location when I moved to another and … started over. Sigh. But knowing that He knew in ways I wanted to known,  and that my desire to be known was good, was a comfort to my soul. Thanks for your comments, they enrich our discussion!

  6. Lori June 11, 2014

    I went through a period of loneliness even though I had lots of activity in my life.  Though I was busy doing valuable things, I wasn’t connecting with other women at a heart level.  Because I have six children, I think that others had simply stopped inviting me to various outings because, more often than not, I had to decline due to my responsibilities and a traveling husband.  I started to feel neglected and resentful of our large family and our many “gifts from the Lord.”

    Then I realized, that I needed to be more proactive.  I often couldn’t do the things my friends invited me to, but if I planned something, then I could do it!  It also dawned on me that if I felt lonely in a house full of people, there had to be others around me who felt the same way.  I stopped assuming “She’s too busy” and decided to widen my invitations and expand my friendships.

    I threw a party and invited friends and asked them to invite their friends.  We had a blast!  I had women I just met volunteering to help me throw a party the same time next year before the first party was over.  By reaching out, I became more accessible, made new friends and deepened a few existing friendships.  I still don’t often get to hang with the girls when invited out, but I do get invited and I do get more phone calls, just to check on me.  And vice versa.

    1. Amy Young June 11, 2014

      Lori, I love this comment! The distinction between confusing being busy with being connected. I have become  more and more convinced over the years that there is SO MUCH MORE going on for every one than we see on the surface. And I think it is one of the enemy’s great tactics to confuse doing something valuable (and it is!) with being connected. Both CAN coexist, but they are not necessarily.

      And I love they ways in which you shared with us the ways that you were proactive. What have others tried to reach out and make friends?

  7. laura July 15, 2014

    Just finished reading this book for the first time ever.  It was great to have the back story for it and to have the TCK aspect of Mary pointed out.  I’m not sure I would have figured it out on my own.

    Life overseas held a lot of loneliness for me – we moved a lot, had a lot of different roles and lived in isolated cities.  The expat community that I finally came into contact with was comprised mostly of people from different passport countries than me.  I’m also a TCK, which does add something into the mix as well 🙂

    I appreciated how Mary and Colin were able to connect with each other in their loneliness… how they clashed and yet both grew in such positive ways.  They discovered lies which they believed to be true and were able to overcome them.  They saw themselves as connected to things much bigger than themselves instead of believing themselves to be totally isolated.

    I would have loved to see the garden!  I’m once again in a place with a garden and it has been so life giving.  I have never really gardened before so I feel like I’ve connected with Mary and Colin on this point- the wonder of watching life come from something that when you first look at it seems to be dead.  That is cool be it physical or spiritual.

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