The Lonely Diplomat: on home
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Where, or what, or even who is home for you?
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Where does one begin to write a blog post on a concept like 'home'?
Like any good public servant who's been trained and skilled in the ways of evidence-based public policy development, I went to the dictionary to find a pithy definition of home.
The best definition that I could find was from the Oxford Dictionary and defines 'home' as 'the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household'.
Hmm. It goes some of the way there, but isn't quite it. The word 'permanently' hardly applies to the diplomatic life.
After thinking for a little while (which usually involves me walking around the house with a cloud over my head), I asked our kids what home means for them.
One child answered after a long, thoughtful pause and said simply, "It's where I live."
The other said how Wellington is now his home, but also felt that Seoul was home.
We talked about this for a while and they both agreed with each other that while they're Australian, they don't really see Australia as home. This got me thinking once more and I want to revisit what being the child of a diplomat means to our children in a future post.
I expressed my frustration in this weeks' subscriber email and got a wonderful suggestion from a subscriber about the importance of understanding your own concept of home from a book by Katia Vlachos called 'A Great Move'.
I was so grateful to get the suggestion, as it helped me with the struggle to define home. I continued to wonder how do I could define home in a way that we'd all understand. Then it hit me:
Each of us has our own emotional understanding of home.
We all conjure up images of home in our minds when we talk about it, don't we? My mental images of home bear little resemblance to any one else's. Home isn't just a place where we live: Home is a feeling. Home is a place where we know we are, and feel, loved. We are, and feel, seen. It's a place where we belong.
That sense of belonging as being home sits very well with me. I ask that you feel that sense of home as you read through the rest of this post.
A question: how is it that we can both feel at home and be strangers when away on a posting, but once we're home we can feel like we miss our home?
Simpler yet: how is it that we can feel at home both everywhere and nowhere at the same time?
Confused? Me too. But that's the point.
What's the problem?
For me, perhaps the undisputed highlight of being a diplomat is the chance to live and work in another country for a few years. This is very distinct from travelling to visit another city or country. We live in the communities for three, four or five years. We put down roots. We make a home. We find our place. We belong.
We do this despite knowing that it's temporary. We know that we can't simply observe life while we're on posting. We know we need to live and make the most of the wonderful opportunity we have.
The flip side of this is that while we know it is temporary, we can be all in and put down roots quickly and deeply, knowing that we move frequently. Each move means uprooting ourselves and our families and settling into another new community and working out where and how we belong all over again.
This is both exhilarating and destabilising. It's both an amazing voyage of discovery and potentially very traumatic.
How does the curious and confusing juxtaposition of being a diplomat affect our ability to be resilient and our ability to maintain connection?
With every move, there's a physical, emotional and mental disconnection that comes from saying good bye to people and places that are important to you, perhaps for the last time. I've explored this in some previous posts, so I won't dwell much longer on this point in this one.
I spoke with Dr Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist from the Victoria University of Wellington's School of Psychology this week. I asked him what moving does to us and our concept of home.
He said that, as a worst case scenario, the moving can leave us 'feeling like we don't belong or don't have a purpose', saying that people - diplomats, too - 'want to feel that they belong and have a purpose. If they don't, they'll find it somehow.'
Belonging and purpose. This resonated with me deeply. I felt I was on to something.
When asked to elaborate, Dr Sutherland replied that if we don't feel that we belong or have a purpose, we may want to fill the void left by the absence of these feelings wherever we can find it: Work. Alcohol. Drug use. Sex. Exercise. Shopping. Gambling. Travel. You know, the usual things we use to numb our pain. We'll come back to this point in a moment.
We then spoke of the pain that we feel when we uproot our lives every few years and then transplant ourselves - and maybe our families - in a new environment.
For mid-career diplomats
You know what I'm talking about, by our mid-careers, we've all felt the thrill of exploring a new city and country and doing what we do to make it home. Discovering the city and country we'll be calling home for a few years is always exciting.
All going well, we will quickly find or create somewhere where we belong and have a purpose. We begin to make friends. If we have any children with us, they begin to settle in to their new school. Our significant others find their feet. We find our favourite places to eat, shop and socialise. We become known by people in the community and, while still foreigners, we create a home. After a time of change and flux, life adjusts to the new normal and we resume.
If we don't feel like we belong or have a purpose, we can really struggle to feel settled and at home. We can miss what life was like in other places we've lived. We are acutely aware that we no longer have those things the gave us a sense of belonging and purpose are no longer readily present. We can miss our families and friends, our work, our schools and our previous routines. We miss the feeling of being home.
This is particularly pertinent when we return to our home countries at the end of a posting. Yet again, we must find or create a sense of belonging and purpose. But this time, we're home. Things are supposed to be great! We know how things work. We know the language.
But, just like arriving at the start of a new posting, there's a period of adjustment as we find that sense of belonging and purpose. This period of reverse culture shock is often mentioned to me as one of the biggest challenges of this diplomatic life.
This is easily understandable when we view it through the lens of finding a place to belong and finding our purpose. The move home comes with a new job (possibly losing diplomatic status and becoming a regular public servant again), another house and possibly a new school. It can take some time to adjust. But it's home, we should feel at home immediately!
On posting, we're surrounded by others who get it. They understand what it's like to move internationally and establish yourself physically, mentally and emotionally all over again in a new place. When we move home at the end of a posting, we no longer have that community so readily around us. People who understand what it's like to aren't around us anymore. This can be isolating. This can make us feel like we don't belong at home.
Except at work. The office is filled with people who understand. We can feel that we've found that place of belonging. Perhaps our purpose is to then get that promotion or get back out again on another posting.
While it's tempting to stay with what and who is familiar, safe and comfortable, Dr Sutherland cautions us against becoming enmeshed in a closed circuit. We can be closed off to new ideas, ways of thinking, people and influences. We can create these closed circuits at work, within a family unit or in an expatriate community. We need fresh ideas and fresh ways of thinking otherwise we operate in a stale, and potentially toxic, environment.
It's so easy to become enmeshed in one or more of these circuits, isn't it? We succumb to the temptation to insulate ourselves to protect us from the pain and hurt that comes from moving from place to place. Being enmeshed in a closed circuit inhibits connection. It prevents being where you are. It closes us to external influences. It prevents us from being where we are.
We can deprive ourselves of one of the reasons we love being a diplomat: exposing ourselves to new ways of thinking and being.
Living and working internationally and representing your country and advancing its interests remains a privilege and an honour. Beyond the work, getting out and exploring the world and living somewhere - as opposed to visiting - is a real thrill and is one of the main reasons why many of us do it over and over. When it stops being thrilling, it's possibly time to step off the posting carousel.
But, there's a 'but'. The 'but' is the main point.
But for all the positives, it's allowed to suck sometimes too. It's hard to feel that we don't really belong somewhere, even at home.
What are we to do?
It seems that for diplomats, home is not so much a place like in the Oxford Dictionary's definition. For diplomats and those with us on the journey, home is more likely to be who and what gives us the feeling of belonging and purpose.
So let's pause a moment and go back to the point about home being a feeling of being seen, heard and belonging.
At times when you didn't feel at home or settled, such as when starting a posting or returning home at the end of one and feeling that sense of reverse culture shock, did you feel that you belonged and had a purpose where you were?
What did you do? How did you - or, indeed, how are you - filling the void left in the absence of belonging and purpose?
Did you lose yourself in the comfort of your work? Did you feel that at a time of uncertainty and dramatic change, that you felt most comfortable working?
Did you get that sense of belonging from other diplomats in your office or from other diplomats or expatriates in your community?
At the end of a tough day, did you get comfort, advice and reassurance from anyone? Of course you did, and this is critical to building our resilience to do our very demanding jobs and living within another culture and society (and I've discussed resilience and diplomats in this post and will investigate further in an upcoming post).
But could this comfort, advice and reassurance only come from a people in a closed circuit? By this, I mean do these conversations where you seek help descend into competitive whingeing, gossip and fierce agreement about how terrible the situation is? Or did you feel heard and then were you challenged with new ideas, ways of thinking and positive suggestions?
Did you try and fill that void left by the absence of belonging and purpose with any kind of numbing behaviour? Did it work?
We all acknowledge that, for everyone, it's hard at times. It’s allowed to be hard. It's a peculiar feeling to be home and feel homesick for home.
It's more peculiar yet to feel and know that home is a place we can only be temporarily. We can’t stay while we remain diplomats.
With these conflicting emotions of excitement and dispossession within us, we need to resist the urge to live safely in response to having our hearts broken, after having put down roots somewhere and then transplanting ourselves somewhere else.
We live away from home and create homes all over the world. We make this happen in our own individual ways and in a way that few people outside the profession can understand.
I'm firmly convinced that we diplomats are our best support when we're struggling with anything, be it: moving; culture shock; or the difficulty of maintaining the façade that everything is OK.
Finally, the opportunity to live and work in a number of cities and countries around the globe can be a useful professional and personal compare and contrast exercise. However, we need to recognise when some comparisons between our various homes and the thoughts and feelings that come with them no longer serve us.
Statements like ‘this was done better in a previous city’ may be a clue that we are hanging on to things and may not be helping us be present where we are.
There’s been a lot to think about in this post, hasn’t there? I feel that it’s important to recognise what feeling like we don’t belong where we are and don’t have a purpose links to our sense of home.
It’s time to reflect on how you get your sense of home where you are now and consider if you’re getting your sense of belonging and your purpose from sources that serve you.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, resilience 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.