I have reached a stage in our transition to Colombia that most expats probably experience but would rather skip – homesickness. Homesickness is a funny thing. We all experience it at some point. Sometimes it’s as a child, during our first sleepover at a friend’s house, or maybe as a “tween”, during that first week of summer camp. Maybe it’s when we leave college to set up our “real life” for the first time, or perhaps even later, after a divorce or a break-up, when the same house we were living in before suddenly ceases to feel like home due to the absence of the relationship that defined it. Of course, a move to another country can do it too.
We never become completely immune to homesickness, and no matter our age, its basic anatomy remains the same. Homesickness is about identity. All of us, some more than others, define ourselves in part by what others reflect back. We know who we are in part because we can see it in the way that the people who know us well react to what we say and do, and by what they expect of us on a daily basis. If we remove those people from our lives, we can sometimes temporarily feel like a person who is asked to describe their physical appearance without the benefit of a mirror. If we are asked to describe ourselves only a few days after the mirror is withdrawn, it’s not that hard. We remember what we looked like then, and can be reasonably sure that we haven’t changed all that much. But as more time passes without the mirror, we may begin to question whether we still look the same. We may begin to question whether we in fact are the same. If we are really, truly cut off from interaction with the loved ones and even acquaintances who know us, we may begin to feel like the tree that fell in the forest with no one to hear it. Do we really even exist at all?
Of course, the disconcerting, sometimes surreal emptiness that is homesickness is always only temporary. Unless we literally seclude ourselves from other human interaction, we will eventually again have people nearby who know us, people who will serve as the mirror to ground us and remind us of who we are. But the interesting thing is that we may find – even if we try to remain unchanged – that we are not exactly the same as before. Major life transitions change us. Sometimes they change us only at the superficial level, as when a person who hasn’t looked in the mirror for a year might notice a few more wrinkles. Sometimes they change us at the core. But without a doubt, we will be different.
This is the source of the fear and freedom of major change. It gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to redefine who we are, to evolve at a rate faster than the laws of nature would otherwise allow. But to enjoy the freedom, we’ve got to somehow simultaneously relinquish our need for total control, recognizing that we can’t predict exactly how or what parts of us will be changed by the experience, while also trusting that the parts of our identity most important to us can be retained.
Homesickness, like so many things, is about letting go – letting go of the intricate details of how we defined ourselves previously, and opening ourselves up to a new, broader definition. It’s always more comfortable to get to the other side of that chasm, but crossing is part of the adventure.