An Unappeased Yearning to Return

Nostalgia

“Sometimes I’m so homesick I can’t get out of bed. Especially in the winter.” This was said to a colleague of mine by a Brazilian patient a few years ago after the health center she worked for decided to change a depression survey to add these two questions:

Do you ever get homesick?

What do you do when you get homesick?

A recent quote I read about nostalgia echos the words and thoughts of this woman. “The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”*

This patient had an unappeased yearning to return, a longing for what no longer is, a ‘saudade’. 

At a wedding this fall I met a woman who had moved back to the United States after living in Afghanistan for 10 years. “Do you miss it?” I asked. She stopped and looked at me full on. “Thank you so much for asking me” she said. “Yes – I miss it so much. So much. And no one has asked me this. Not one person has asked me if I miss Afghanistan this past year.” 

An unappeased yearning to return.

A few years ago I sat beside an elderly patient who had lost her husband, her children far away and busy with their own lives. “I look at pictures and I have sweet memories. And oh how I miss those days when I was surrounded by family, in my home.” There she sat in a small apartment for the elderly, her phone beside her so she wouldn’t miss the call that just might come through.

A longing for what no longer exists.

I see these longings for what no longer exists with immigrants, with refugees, with the elderly. I also see it with former expats and third culture kids. They have an unappeased yearning to return. They don’t live in this on a daily basis, instead it comes in strange waves at inopportune times, loneliness and nostalgia rushing up on them like a hot blush, from toe to head. It can be mistaken by the uninitiated for a discontent, an inability to adjust. But I think that reduces the feelings and fails to acknowledge the complexity of those feelings. This unappeased yearning is not wrong and it doesn’t mean we are not fully living. This is the mistake I have made in the past – confusing the longing with restlessness, with a fretful inability to function properly.

But I have realized something important: we can be content and well-adjusted to a place and yet still have a longing for the places we came from, the places where we will never return. 

Yes, for some, like the example of the patient, it results in a temporary inability to function. But for more people it sits in the soul, under the surface, not affecting activities of daily living, but silently accompanying us wherever we go. And there are things that help to calm and tame these feelings. Stories with old friends, either in person or through phone calls; inhaling memories through a favorite meal at a restaurant that smells like ‘home’; even a language class where you revive some of the skills that are laying dormant.

More and more I see this as a gift in our world. Because this is what makes us human. This is what can connect us to each other. When we are fully at home and secure we are unaware of the journey of others. We can ignore the lonely, walk by the homeless without a thought, dismiss the one who is ‘other’. But when we are in  tune with our nostos and algos we can stretch out a hand to those who walk the journey with us.

What do you think? Have you experienced an unappeased yearning to return? How can it be a gift? 

*Milan Kundera

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27 thoughts on “An Unappeased Yearning to Return

    1. I read your post this morning and wanted to weep. I so understand this. You are an artist with your words. I hadn’t had a chance to comment because of my work schedule but your piece is stunning. Have your read the piece Saudade? that is the word I thought about when I read your piece. I don’t know if you’d be interested in doing a guest post but if so I would love to have you on Communicating Across Boundaries.

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      1. Thanks, Marilyn. No, I hadn’t read Saudade, but I read it after you mentioned it in your comment, and there is a lot to that, isn’t there? “A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present….”

        Because it isn’t really that we want the country we left behind. We just want all of the perfect things to be able to come together in one place. And the fact that they can’t is like putting together a puzzle that’s missing half of the pieces.

        Finding time to write is a constant challenge with my work schedule (which is about to become even fuller as I make a big move and begin attending university this summer), but it may be possible for me to write a guest post for you some time in the future.

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      2. I love the puzzle illustration. It’s how I’ve so often felt. Or as though I’m the puzzle piece that doesn’t fit in the rest of the puzzle.

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  1. I want to voice thanks to all of you for these thoughtful comments. Almost all of them stirred up more thoughts, feelings…..and blog post ideas! If any of you are interested in writing more about this for CAB – please contact me! I would love it!

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  2. The yearning for me is for another time and another place. The hard thing is to know that even if I was to physically go back to Pakistan, those memories will not be present because buildings have changed, people have moved on. There’s a sense of loss in that those things can never be gone back to, never recaptured or re-experienced, even if other new and equally enjoyable things are in their place.

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    1. Right! That’s why nostalgia doesn’t quite get to the core and Saudade or hiraeth does. It’s the wistful longing for what no longer exists. I’m right there with you Sophie!

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  3. Sometimes the longing is so strong, it takes my breath away. For the places, for the people, for the way things used to be. But, as you say, most of the time, it is under the surface and I tick along doing all the things I’m meant to do and being happy about them. The longing is an undercurrent, but we can’t let it pull us under. It can most certainly be a gift if it reminds us to reach out to others who may be in danger of drowning.

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    1. And I think that’s the very best of what we can do – understand the depth of this so that we can reach out the hand to the drowning. Thanks for sharing this journey with me Stacy!

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  4. Seems the roots of my Nostalgia always lead me to my Identity. And if I am are no longer “there”, that place I can no longer BE, am I still who I thought I was??

    of course, the question is rhetorical – So I sit, perhaps at my computer at work, gazing past the grey earth, shorn of its snow-mantle, seeing beyond the un-born spring, into the past. The nostalgia emerges. A mist-covered lake. – I guess the difficult thing about identity is that those we love can never truly know who we are and from where we came. Because our journey is jut that. Our own. It can feel isolating. But I choose to nurture the compassion that thrives in nostalgic soil, allowing it to drive me to connect with others. To hear.

    Their story. Their song.

    All because there is One Who does know me. And because there will be a time when I will know, even as I am Known.

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    1. this is achingly beautiful. And the rhetorical question – I don’t know if it is. I think it is at the heart of those of us who live between worlds and we don’t want it to be rhetorical. We want an answer. Are we who we thought we were when we are away from those places that define us? That’s why I love so much the answer you give in your last 2 sentences. That’s it. Our question is answered, not through where we are but through whose we are. Thank you so much for your words.

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  5. Love this piece Marilyn! I have never admitted this, but I used to get the sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach homesickness until well into my 20’s. I don’t know why, but I do often feel the longing for what “no longer is”, and sometimes I feel a longing but I’m not even sure what for!

    Your writing is always amazing Marilyn. Thank you for this!

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    1. Oh I so relate with this. And you’re right – it’s not something easily admissable because we don’t understand it ourselves. Thank you so much for your words about my writing – they are like gold.

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  6. The comment above I think hits the nail on the head. The Orthodox understanding of the Fall in Genesis is more about yearning than about guilt – it is this sense that there IS somewhere we fully belong, but this is not quite it. And I think your point about embracing nostalgia as something that can connect us to others and make us more compassionate is so good. It is easy to feel that unusual experiences set one apart, but the truth is that EVERYONE experiences loss and yearning, we are ALL travelers far from home.

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    1. This is so good Thea – I wish I had identified some of what you write earlier in my life – like during my 20’s. Or maybe more so my mid 30’s when I realized we were not moving back overseas. Because in thinking I was the only one I ended up isolating myself at points when I most needed others. And the travelers far from home piece is so reminiscent of CS Lewis famous quote on longing and belonging. Thank you.

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  7. Yes, I have a longing to return to Pakistan or even India that I don’t see any way of fulfilling. In part I satisfied that longing by writing “Captives of Minara,” and in part whenwe make curry or have the family together and get samosas. Partly it eases when we go to an South Asian restaurant.

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    1. I love that you used writing to work through this! It’s the very reason I began writing. I also find that longing satisfied through connections, samosas, and South Asian restaurants. I think I’ll blog about that~

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  8. This is such a beautiful post and again you’ve managed to express things I feel but don’t know how to write. I particularly loved this line and paragraph, “But for more people it sits in the soul, under the surface, not affecting activities of daily living, but silently accompanying us wherever we go.” – that’s so true, and I’m glad you reminded me that it’s ok to feel this. Thank you for reassuring me that I can feel that longing but still be present where I am, that they do not negate one another.

    Sometimes we forget that, so thank you for reminding me of this: “we can be content and well-adjusted to a place and yet still have a longing for the places we came from, the places where we will never return. “

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    1. I feel like I have only recently realized this Dounia. It was when someone mentioned to me that sometimes my writing was dark or something like that. I was shocked and then I realized that my writing doesn’t reflect the whole of where I am. I look back and write to reflect on some of my past feelings when I didn’t have writing as a tool It’s not the sum of what I feel now. And so to recognize that I am adjusted, I’m not discontent, I am grateful….but I can still have those longings – I wish someone had told me long ago that it’s okay! So thanks to you for understanding both the living journey and the writing journey!

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  9. As always, Marilyn, you’ve written well! I can relate to so much of what you have shared above. Recently, I am experiencing this from the perspective of a mom whose sons have grown up and started their adult lives. Looking back at pictures of a time and a family (our family) to which there is no returning. The gift is in knowing what we shared…and the places and faces with which we shared our family times. And in the yearning for what we shared comes a prayer for what I hope lives on inside each of them to share with the friends and family they have join them on their journeys through life.
    Blessings,
    Delana

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    1. Yes!! Me too! That sense of deep yearning for when they were younger, and we will never return to that. And you write so well of the gift as well as the prayer – you’ve voiced the prayer I’ve whispered many times.

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  10. A dear friend, a sister in the faith, is dying. She is so ready to go HOME, home to be with Jesus. As I was dropping off to sleep last night, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I thought of her daughter who died years ago at 27, the 2 stillborn grandsons she never saw, of her husband gone for several years. Such a joyful reunion to be anticipating. Most of all I thought of her finally being face to face with Jesus, the Savior she has loved and served. So my tears were mixed, tears of joy for my sister, my friend and tears for the pain and loss of death.
    Does this sound disconnected from this post on nostalgia, that pain of longing for some other place? I believe our longings, our nostalgia in this life are related to that deeper longing for a permanent place, a longing that God has put into our hearts.
    “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
    Thank you Marilyn. Another beautiful piece.

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    1. Polly I like what you’ve written and agree with your statement that our nostalgia, longings in this life are related to that deeper longing. Just today I read a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor (Learning to Walk in the Dark) that goes along with this thought. “After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to noda. There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea, steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.” Amen to Ecclesiastes 3:11. Thank you Marilyn for generating these thoughts.

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