Updated: Mar 23
I have been back home visiting family and friends this week.
Being posted to New Zealand means that we are much closer to home than we’ve ever been on our previous three postings. The short, direct flight from Wellington is a doddle compared to the 36-hour, four-flight odyssey it took to get to Caracas on our first posting. It’s been lovely seeing my parents and friends. I have been able to reflect on the cost of our choices to do this work on us and those who we leave behind.
One thing is undeniably true of this career of ours: there is nothing quite like it. There’s a certain, indescribable buzz when you’re in the room when an agreement between nation states is reached after significant effort from both governments. It’s thrilling. Our work brings people together.
But, let’s be honest.
Those instances are generally rare and most of the time our work is like any other office job. Sure, we get to do our work in some amazing places – and some pretty awful places, too – for the duration of our postings. Our days are largely spent organising and then sitting in meetings, reading and writing emails, yawning through interminable teleconferences that are full of jargon, writing reports and leading and managing staff. Don’t even get me started on the time and effort needed to negotiate office politics - within the mission, within our host government and within our own agency. But it’s organising and being witness to great things and really being able to get into life in our adopted homes that keep us coming back for more.
We know that all this comes at significant personal costs, doesn’t it?
We miss so many birthdays, weddings, funerals and other milestone events that bind us to our friends and family. Technology is a wonderful way of keeping connected, but the reality is that we cannot attend every event without significant physical and financial cost- no matter how much we want to.
We know all this conceptually when we sign up for the job. We make the best of it; we love hosting our friends and families when they visit us. We also make the best of situations can have wonderful celebrations with our friends at post. Indeed, some of these celebrations are some of my best memories of our times overseas.
Where’s our personal teleportation device?
We know that life carries on without us back home. Our friends and relatives still get married. They still have babies. Our parents get older, can fall into ill health and pass away.
We all know people who have received devastating and heartbreaking news about a family member or friend while on posting and have had to rush home.
For us, we're allowed to travel home for compassionate reasons if a close member of the family is seriously unwell or has died. We are lucky. When does one make use of that fare if there’s a long term illness? Once that compassionate fare has been taken, we pay for the travel.
Again, this is known conceptually before we sign up, but concepts and lived realities are often different. If we were to travel home for every event that connects families and friends to one another, we’d be be spending our time travelling home – often for long flights.
Of course, it’s feasible and many people do it as often as they can from wherever they are, but every time is impractical.
The result is that we’re simply not there for many of our family’s and friends’ milestone events. Technology is shrinking the emotional and mental distances between us, but short of popular teleportation being a thing we can use, we can’t physically be where we want to be and when we need to be.
I feel that missing these milestone events compounds the discombobulated feeling we have coming back home at the end of our postings. Our family and friends made memories and lived stories that don’t include us while we were away and we drop back in to these social situations that used to be so familiar and try to make sense of what's happening without the full context. Similarly, we have made memories and lived stories while we were away that don’t include our friends and family.
We are, when back home with our friends and families, these strange people who casually drop in references to places, people and events in our conversations and anecdotes. It's little wonder we often feel unheard - there's no point of reference for those who don't experience it.
I'll leave this point for now, as it is in itself a whole other topic to explore on another day.
For the lonely diplomat, the feeling of not being in the right place at the right time for their family and friends can start to weigh heavily on us after doing this for a few postings.
We have all worked so hard to get these jobs that can send us to work for our government's overseas. Once we were in them, we had to work even harder in our early careers to get where we are now. This is a cornerstone of the competitive environment in which we work. However, and in the end, the job simply cannot be done anywhere else.
We must continually make personal compromises and sacrifices to do this amazing job. Some friendships cannot survive the physical and emotional distance, our lives go in separate ways and we lose touch.
The effect of doing this job and living this life for many years strains even the strongest friendships without putting in significant effort. All relationships need careful and deliberate attention, communication and effort if they are to survive and grow.
The effort can very difficult to do when you’re busy living your life and bringing nations together and advancing your country’s interests internationally.
We may not be aware of the significance of our decisions and compromises until it's too late and we realise that we've missed out on those events that define our relationships with others.
So while we make the most of the personal and career opportunities that come with living and working overseas, we all get to a point where we begin to look back and wonder what would our life be like if we weren't on the diplomatic posting circuit.
The affect of this is that we can begin to regret our decisions and resent the job. We feel stuck, helpless and trapped. We love what we do, but hate the compromises we had to make.
Moreover, when we do reach out we can find that the people whom we once knew so well have evolved beyond us. We've been gone so long that our lives have drifted apart.
Something to think about
Diplomats are certainly not alone when it comes to moving away from friends and family for work, so the same principles of loneliness apply to everyone who has moved.
Have you found that you have drifted apart from your family and the people you knew when you were that young, idealistic wannabe diplomat? How do you feel about this?
Have you kept up the strong bonds with some, or all, of those to whom you were close in your early life? How do you make it work?
Want to know more?
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.