The Lonely Diplomat: on Christmas
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
It is the season of goodwill to all and
a time to be with family and friends.
What is it about the festive season that
can have us feeling homesick, nostalgic or lonely?
‘Tis the week before Christmas, and all over the globe, not a diplomat nor their families are calm, not even the [insert your word here that rhymes with globe and refers to a young person in a family. I couldn’t think of one].
While children have dances of sugar plum fairies in their heads, we adults have lists and lists racing through ours as we prepare for the pointy end of the festive season. Perhaps you're travelling home. Perhaps you're travelling somewhere else, or perhaps you're staying at post to keep the mission open. Amidst it all, it's 'go, go, go' as we prepare.
I want you to stop a moment as I ask: What is it about the festive season that spikes so many emotions in many of us?
And while not all of my readers will observe Christmas, we can all relate to the emotions associated with travelling home for those major events with our families, or not being there for them.
What’s the problem?
Browse through newspapers, social media or any quick search of the internet and you’ll see any number of reasons for why this time of year is so stressful. We can be homesick. There are frustrations about unspoken and unmet expectations. There’s family with whom we just don’t get along for more than 360 days a year, but the days around Christmas we’re expected to ignore the feelings and be happy and festive. There are financial pressures. There are relationship pressures.
We feel that we have to steel ourselves for the battles ahead. Put on our happy faces and our ‘everything’s perfect’ mask to convince ourselves and others that everything is indeed perfect.
We do this because we do not want to disturb images of the perfect Christmas we've conjured in our collective imagination. In the northern hemisphere, there will be snow. In the southern, it will be sunny and warm (if not hot). Our tables will groan under the weight of food prepared in kitchens by families who laugh, smile and don’t get at all stressed or fight. There are Christmas carols being crooned by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Michael Bublé playing in the background at just the right volume. Families will be dressed in their new clothes and the gifts that we give are genuinely appreciated and the gifts we receive are just so us. Everyone’s happy, smiling, laughing and just the right amount of tipsy so they can remember creating the beautiful memories that will be cherished forever. Isn’t it funny how our imaginations take us to scenes from catalogues and TV advertisements?
It's never that simple. People are complicated social beasts. We prepare ourselves for when the initial excitement at the start of the day turns into frustration, passive aggressive or overt comments about weight, clothes, relationship status and/or general poor life choices justified with the ‘I’m only saying it because I love you’ excuse or defended by the ‘Oh, I was only joking! Stop being so sensitive’ response. We're careful to avoid the truth bombs dropped after a few too many. There’s tiredness from weeks of preparation, excitement and travel. There are worries about the quality and quantity of food, booze and gifts.
Yes, another glass of whatever that was last time will put us in the frame of mind where we can handle the day.
Some may or may not relate to the scenario above, as there are as many perspectives about Christmas as there are people celebrating it. Rather than write the definitive text on the subject, I'll progress with two scenarios that can apply to diplomats: those travelling home and those staying at post.
For the mid-career diplomat who’s flying home
For all the excitement that this time of the year promises, the reality is that it's not all that pleasant travelling internationally to join the family festivities. It's the busiest time of the year and the terminals and planes are full of people who just want to get where they're going.
Once we do arrive home, initial excitement that comes with arriving home and seeing familiar people and places can turn into anxiety around departing again. This anxiety can make celebrations feel bittersweet and can manifest in different coping mechanisms like excessive alcohol or food consumption, absence/avoidance, perfectionism or pretending that everything’s fine.
I’m confident that we all have stories about feeling every bit of the blow-ins from another world when stories of our lived experiences fall flat with our families and friends who cannot relate to them. We can’t deny that our lived experiences change us all. For those family and friends who we farewelled at the start of our postings, we can remain in their memories as the same people who left. The stories we use as a way to reconnect with them when we’re back can be difficult to comprehend for those unfamiliar with the work, where and how it’s done. We can feel that we’ve grown apart and are more connected through our pasts than through our present or future.
We can assume the same role in the family we had before we left home, no matter our current age. Sleeping in the same room we did as a child can really mess with our minds. One day we’re arranging and attending meetings between senior officials or heads-of-state; the next we’re berated for having a messy room.
Moreover, if we have children, there can be pressure for our kids to feel at home ‘at home’ immediately. Grandparents and grandkids need time to connect or reconnect. Aunts, uncles and cousins may only be known through Skype and may play a small part in their lives, but we can expect our kids to have an instant rapport with them just like we did with ours when we were growing up. This can be heartbreaking if there’s little genuine rapport between our kids and our parents and other relatives. Our children’s relationships with their extended families can be based on what we’ve created for them, not on what they’ve built for themselves.
This pressure to feel at home at home isn’t just on our children, it’s on us too. This touches on the topic of home for us diplomats, and this will be the topic of another blog post in the future. For now, it’s discombobulating to be home among familiar sights, sounds and smells that we know from our childhood and other times in our lives and yet to feel foreign.
Then when it is time to leave home to return home, beyond the sadness of saying goodbye to family and friends once again, we can feel apprehensive about returning to a difficult place to live or to jobs or schools that we don’t like. We are reminded, once again, of the price of being a diplomat.
For the mid-career diplomat who’s staying at post
This festive season you may be at work covering your colleagues’ absences to keep the mission open. We may be stressed as we’ve got more work to do; homesick and sad being away from family and friends; anxious about whether we’ll be invited to a colleague’s house for a meal or party; and there may be joy and happiness as friends come together to make memories over a shared Christmas meal.
These ‘orphan’s Christmases' are some of our fondest memories from all of our postings, with people sharing food, drinks and mixing all our Christmas traditions together. Still, these memories are also reminders of being away from home. Homesickness is real.
Or perhaps family and/or friends are visiting you. This is your time to show off your current home to people from home. If you have to work, it can be tough to extricate yourself from a house full of people in holiday mode and, if you have the language skills, may rely heavily on you to get them out and about. While it’s lovely to have guests, we could feel bad that we are at once excited to have them stay and want our space back.
For all mid-career diplomats
Wherever you’re celebrating this year, you may be feeling pangs of loneliness and isolation. We can be surrounded by family and friends but feel like we’re not heard or no longer understood. We could also be acutely aware that those closest to us are far away. We may feel that in speaking up and expressing our feelings and thoughts, we may upset people, or we will be met with a lack of empathy, and with derision and/or scorn and made to feel shamed and ungrateful.
Worse still, we fear that our thoughts, words and feelings about being lonely or feeling isolated will be dismissed as somehow expected or deserved given that this diplomatic lifestyle was our choice.
We fear that by talking about the elephant in the room – whatever it is – that we will be ruining Christmas. So we stay quiet and just play our role in the annual Christmas pantomime.
We could be haunted by the ghost of Christmas Past, as we long for simpler, happier times - perhaps with people who are no longer with us, and be visited by the ghosts of Christmases Present and Future and begin the downward spiral to feelings of shame, despair, unworthiness, heartache and regret.
Remember that all humans - diplomats included - need to feel seen, heard and belong. If our attempts to connect with those around us don't result in us feeling seen and heard for who we are (not what we were), we can feel like we no longer belong. There's another rich vein for analysis in another post, so it's enough to keep this point in mind for now.
It’s little wonder that this time of year can be stressful for so many.
What are we to do?
Let’s get curious this festive season. Let’s treat Christmas like an anthropological expedition. Observe those around you: your families; your friends; your fellow passengers on your flights; most of all, observe yourself.
What do these shared rituals and customs mean? What are the words and actions of others telling you? What are your words, thoughts and actions (including what you're eating and drinking) telling you? How can we align our expectations – or the expectations of those around us – for a perfect Christmas with reality?
How does the issue look from others' perspectives?
Write it down. Ponder it objectively. Then act.
This sense of observation can be very powerful as it can replace the initial urge to respond rashly with curiosity and empathy. This does not at all mean that we need to accept or rationalise poor behaviour within us, around us or aimed at us, but it can mean that our response goes to treat the cause, not treat the symptoms.
Finally, and very importantly, if you are feeling lonely and isolated, there are some excellent suggestions to combat these feelings around Christmas. I suggest typing ‘Loneliness and Christmas’ into your preferred search engine. The results will all talk about the importance of reaching out, accepting invitations (even if you’ve previously refused) and using your skills, interests and talents for others through activities like volunteering.
I know how hard it is to reach out for help when you’re feeling isolated and the very idea of seeking help is too much trouble for you and those around you.
Please, break out of your cocoon, be courageous and reach out.
We’re going to be practicing gratitude for the 12 days of Christmas. Take a photo of something for which – or someone for whom – you’re grateful every day for 12 days starting on Christmas Day. Share them on Instagram or Facebook with #thelonelydiplomat and #12daysofgratitude. An explanation will be great, but not needed. I’ll also create a place in the online forum if you want to share them there.
Also, let’s do some self-care practices:
If you’re feeling alone, tell those around you what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. Remember, kindness and honesty improves every conversation
Maintain healthy habits, especially around exercise
Practice gratefulness – this is an instant mood enhancer, trust me
Journal – dot points will do. Just get those thoughts out of your head
Get plenty of sleep
Crank up your favourite tunes, singly loudly and badly and dance around the room or in the car (this one's my favourite).
Spoiler: There’s no way to get them perfect, that’s why it’s called self-care ‘practice’.
Please find time to relax and unwind amongst all the travel and visits, brunches, lunches, dinners and drinks. You’ve more than earned a break and 2019 promises to be another awesome year. Let’s start it well-rested.
Finally, it’s time for me to practice some gratitude right now. Thank you to you all for your support and reading my posts this past year. While I have been publishing blogs since late August, I’ve been drafting my book and writing posts all year. I’m very grateful for help and guidance of my mentor, Mike Campbell, helpful feedback and responses from many of my readers and for the love and support of my family, who’ve had to listen to me talk incessantly about The Lonely Diplomat!
If you celebrate, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2019. See you in January.
Now, stop reading this and go be where you are.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, loneliness and connection.
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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.