I am sitting here in Florida cross-legged on the floor typing this post. Then I will have to pack my computer up and go in search of an internet connection that will let me send it. My internet died 2 days ago and it will be 2 more until the tech comes to fix it. The irony of the timing doesn’t escape me.
From 2006-2013 I lived far from the reach of regular internet, electricity, running water, paved roads, mail systems, banking systems and medical care. I lived in a deep in the war torn African bush that had changed little for hundreds of years; where superhighways were dirt paths that carved their way through the scrub and grass with an order only those who grew up traveling them fully understood. Every other day I would pack my computer into a little backpack and head out on foot to find a connection at one of the local NGOs so I could do the basics of keeping in touch and administrative housekeeping.
I got used to bucket baths and candlelight, to nighttime walks beneath million star canopies, to sitting around the evening fire with local coffee, laughing with our house mamas as little ones slept in our arms. I got used to having to figure medicine dosages, to holding on for dear life on motorbike taxis, to slower rhythms and being surrounded with incredible community everyday.
Then in 2012-2013 my health finished a violent crash landing that catapulted me back to a once familiar world that suddenly felt bright and glaring, rushed, isolated and foreign. There is danger in leaving and letting someplace a world away change you, capture your heart, weave its beauty and hardship and wonder into the fabric of your very being. Once we do that, we really can never go back home again. It isn’t home that changes while we are gone. It is us who change from the going.
No one prepared me for re-entry when I spent my first 4 months abroad in the villages of Bangladesh at barely 20. I heard a lot about culture shock. I stepped off the plane expecting some sense of bewilderment and foreboding to try and wrestle my peace from me. Instead, I instantly felt at ease and at home. I couldn’t speak, read or write the language, my time there looked nothing like I thought it would, there were profound growing pains but I never once felt shocked by the culture. On the contrary, I felt embraced by it.
Culture shock for me hit in reverse when four months later I returned to my safe college campus and was expected to just pick up right where I left off. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t the same person and no one seemed to understand the fact I left my heart under a mango tree. No one prepared me for the cereal aisle. The first time I stepped onto it, I panicked from the sheer volume of sensory input and broke down weeping because while we had every flavor combination to the point of absurdity, a few weeks prior I had held the lifeless body of a malnourished infant in the village where I stayed who didn’t even have enough food to keep her alive.
No one prepared me for the anger I felt at our excess, for the displacement of any kind of normality I knew before going, for the lack of interest in 99% of the people I knew who thought I was on an extended vacation, for seeing the ugliness and brokenness of my own culture with fresh eyes, for feeling like my heart had whole chunks of it ripped out and left behind, for longing so much for being in a multicultural setting again, I found a church who had services without translation in another language I didn’t understand just so I could feel normal again.
I have lived overseas several times since then and each time I’ve returned, re-entry has been much easier to navigate because I recognized what was going on. The most recent transition home from Africa was not difficult because of reverse culture shock, but because it represented the death of a dream and leaving behind family I fully expected to spend the rest of my life serving. It has been a two-year grieving process with greater feelings of loss than I have ever experienced before.
Even when such a transition is expected and positive from the outset, loss is loss and there is a very real grief that comes with the changes. You aren’t losing it. You don’t need to just move on and get on with the next phase of your life. You don’t need to explain yourself or convince others of the validity of your journey. If you cry in the cereal aisle or feel overwhelmed while running errands or get angry with injustice and excess, you aren’t being hyper-emotional. You don’t need to suck it up and get it together.
A few months ago, I was berating myself for not handling the transition back better or having made more progress in moving on. Jesus whispered into my heart, “Beloved, did it ever occur to you that the depth of your pain and sense of loss is simply a reflection of the depth of your love and My heart poured into you for those cared for and served? The problem isn’t struggling with leaving. The problem would have been if you didn’t.”
Re-entry is hard. We, who love deeply, often feel the pain of transition deeply. Be kind to yourself. Take care of you. Most people won’t get it and that’s ok. A few will. If you or any in your family are really feeling stuck, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from professional resources. Take time to get truly healthy from the inside out before rushing into your next exploit.
We might not be able to ever go back home again. But that doesn’t mean, we can’t go forward to discover a deeper, more profound sense of home that is richer for the journey we have travelled to find it.
Where you feel permission to be yourself today … wherever that is?