The Bittersweet Comfort of the Past

Today is the second post of a 2-part series on Nostalgia by Katha. If you missed last week’s post take a look at “What a computer screen can and cannot do for our nostalgia.” posted last Thursday. This piece is longer than most but well worth the read so grab a cup of tea or coffee and lean into it!


The bittersweet comfort of the past by Katha

“Of all the ways of using history, nostalgia is the most general, looks the most innocent, and is perhaps the most dangerous” – Malcolm Chase

Since early childhood my life has been shaped my movement, transition, and goodbyes. My father’s job as a nurse and missionary has led my family all over Germany and beyond. When I was twelve, my parents decided to move to Uganda to work at a small dispensary; even though I was against it at first, I fell in love with this country as soon as I set foot on its soil. The people, their kind hearts, and their joy despite harsh living conditions became an enrichment and inspiration for me. Quite abruptly we had to say goodbye after only two years and moved back to Germany; re-entry was difficult and exhausting because I had left the country as a child and returned as an adult, feeling completely lost in the German teenage culture. Many times I would go back to Uganda in my dreams and imagine how everything there was so much better than surviving here. Being nostalgic about what I had left behind appeared to be an innocent and very comforting way to escape my miserable present, as Malcolm Chase describes.

The phenomenon of longing for home is probably as old as humanity. One could think of biblical times, when the Israelites mourned the harsh working conditions in Egypt and longed for the return to the Promised Land Canaan. One could refer to ancient literature like the pastorals by Vergil, praising the idyll of simple life in the countryside. People felt melancholic, sad, or homesick – they just never labeled it as ‘nostalgia’.

The term came into being in 1688, when the only 20-year old Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer wrote his medical dissertation about nostalgia and homesickness. The term derives from the Greek ηoστος (nostos: return home) and αλγια (algia: longing), which describes a sad mood and constant longing for one’s native land. Many people at that time – soldiers, students, or servants – suffered from it. Home for these people was a geographical place, and as soon as things from home were missing they became obsessed with one thought only: to return home, the place where they would feel safe and comforted.

In the middle of the 19th century things changed.  Cities became the sites of industrial, transportation and communication revolution. People from all over the world streamed into these new centers to make quick money and get a glimpse of modernity. However, when the first wave of excitement and wonder wore off people realized the downside of modernization: cities were noisy, long working hours drained their energy, and life had lots its quality. People realized that all kinds of praised technology were only technical after all and could not substitute human beings or relationships. They longed for intense and real encounter again, experience instead of knowledge. And this is where the problem began that I still try to wrap my head around today: you cannot travel back in time. People thought if they could only go back home everything would be alright and things were like they used to be. Many did go home, back to the rural areas in the West or even crossing the Atlantic for their home countries, but they often had painful realizations:

“Upon travelling back, however, they found they had not arrived, and never could, for the same technologies that had brought them home had also disrupted traditional ways of life. Home was gone, lost in the past. And while space could be traversed, time could not” (Susan Matt).

Homesickness for a home that could never come back quickly gave way to a sentiment that TCKs are quite familiar with: nostalgia. To cling to what they had lost in an innocent way, people preserved traditions, celebrated their heritage, and promoted culture. Towns hosted Homecoming Weeks for urban residents to return to their homesteads, ancestors were worshipped with a revived passion, and people from the city came to the countryside to experience a holiday in the style of “the good ol’ days”.

TCKs might have to take several planes to visit the places again they refer to as home and their memories might not be linked to one specific location but spread across the globe – nevertheless, they might be able to relate to a few nostalgic notions. Whenever we have to leave a place we say our goodbyes and our brain tells us that no matter when we come back, it will never look the same. We will move on and our friends we leave behind will grow up, too. And yet, our heart seems to take one last snapshot of the places and faces we have come to love – this is the image we’ll store inside of us and bring to life whenever we think of that place. This is how we want to remember it.

Even though I slowly adjusted to German life again, I could not wait to return to Africa one day. After I had graduated from high school I was given the chance to go back, but now something interesting happened: I suddenly hesitated to go back to Uganda because I was afraid I would destroy the perfect illusion I had created over the years. What if everything was so different to how I had preserved it in my mind? What if my childhood memories turned out to be a lot bleaker in reality than in my dreams? Suddenly, nostalgia was not only innocent comfort, but also showed me the limits of remembering.

As much comfort as nostalgia seems to promise our homesick-stricken hearts, there is a bittersweet note to it that we should keep in mind. Have you ever thought about what you remember best about your childhood in country xy, or growing up in place z? Most of our experiences seem to have been positive because our memory seems to be manipulated: it filters out the bad memories and strengthens the happy ones that will create a falsified, beautified, and maybe even simplified, version of the past. Living with or in a past that never existed that way can be rather dangerous. We might be so tied to what has seemingly been that we don’t even see what is right in front of us. The present is just unbearable for us, so we use the past as an escape and comfort. Starting college in a country you have never lived in apart from furlough, struggling with a culture you’re supposed to be part of, or having a hard time opening up to new friends can be just so exhausting – why not take a trip down memory lane and stay there, where everything is known and easy? Well, it’s not. It is an illusion our mind tries to sell us, which will eventually blind us to the see beauty in the present, and even worse, bind us to move on into an exciting future.

So how can we make nostalgia a meaningful part of our lives? The other day I was sitting in a class on African Literature when my professor startled me with the following questions: How do you define yourself? If you only look backwards, do you define yourself only by what you’re missing? I think the feeling of missing is a key element of a TCK’s emotional mindset. It can be a wonderful reminder of the beautiful places and wonderful people who have enriched our lives and shaped our worldview. But it should not hold us back from allowing new places and people to have the chance of having yet another impact on our lives. We’ve been given and have experienced far too much that we could ever define ourselves by everything we do NOT have.

I have lived in South Africa and the United States, made wonderful new memories, and took away things and people to remember. Movement and countless goodbyes have made me question issues like home or rootedness. Pictures, videos, songs or Skype calls help to treasure the people I have come to love or experiences I have made. And yet, I am still struggling to wrap my head around the different worlds I have seen and had to leave behind. How they can all exist next to each other, while I can only be in one. To this day I have not returned to Uganda. But reflecting on nostalgia, its bitter sweetness AND its comfort, have made me want to take that journey.

Have you struggled with living in the past, unwilling or unable to live in the present? How have you worked through this? 

Living In Between the Niches by Katha von Dessien

A joy of blogging is the number of people who come into my world. Katha is one of those people. We emailed a bit after a comment she left on Communicating Across Boundaries and today she writes a beautiful piece on living between the niches for the“Finding Your Niche” Series. You can read more about Katha at the end of the piece.


finding your niche map

To me, the word niche implies that you have found a place you belong, a place where you can fulfill your purpose, where you’re content with life, people, surroundings, yourself.

I am not sure if I have found my niche yet.

It might be that TCKs have trouble belonging, since they travel a lot and seem to belong everywhere and nowhere. It might be that as a student (which I am) you feel a bit in between.

Between living with your parents and making a home for yourself.
Between taking in a lot of research, literature, marveling at the immensity of wisdom out there and the nagging fear how you can turn this into a future job.
Between doing what you love and doing what you have to do to pay the monthly bills. Between enjoying singleness to the fullest and the growing desire to have a family of your own.
Between reminiscing the bitter-sweet memories of my late childhood in beautiful Uganda and the feeling of being ‘grounded’ in Germany at the moment.
Between giving in to nostalgia and struggling to move on into the future.

This in-between stage I find myself in might be my niche. At least for the moment. It might be a time of waiting, but not of wasting. I have been given this time, and I am challenged to use it. Everyday.

When I re-entered Germany after two years in Uganda at the age of 14, it took me a long time to get used to my passport culture again. I felt lost and overwhelmed by all the changes that had taken place in the course of two short years.

But I found a place to belong with other TCKs at annual camps, where it was okay to be a TCK. To feel lost once in a while. To struggle through the challenges together. And to use the advantages the TCK lifestyle has to offer. A bunch of teenagers with a past in countries like Peru, Afghanistan or Zambia quickly grew into a family.

I am still part of this family today. I am done with the re-entry process, but I have something to give to those who come after, who feel lost just like I once did. And it is such a joy to watch TCKs coming for the first time – shy, lost, homesick, angry or depressed – experience healing, a sense of home and belonging, and eventually turn into confident, joyful, young leaders, who are a blessing to me and the communities they settle into.

In the last three years this family has grown. Beyond the boarders of Germany, into a European network. I am part of a committee that wants to connect TCKs across Europe, but also to share resources with TCK caregivers – about TCK camps, re-entry and pre-field orientation, challenges and advantages of a TCK lifestyle and a lot more. It is such an encouragement to connect with others and see how God is at work in other countries.

I fill my current niche with passing on some of the blessings I have received when I felt lost on my TCK journey. I am definitely not done yet, and (since we all know TCKs are like that J) I will probably have to move on very soon when I am done with my studies. The future ahead of me is exciting and scary at the same time.

Will I find another niche to fill?

I don’t know what the next steps on my journey will look like.

I love the things I am doing right now, but I also know there’s a world out there with so many countries, people and opportunities waiting to be discovered.

In moments like these, when I find myself wondering if I have invested my time in the right things and people, if I will ever find a place where I feel fully at home – in such moments it helps to remind myself of the One who created me, and who promised to carve out niches for me as I walk with him on this journey.

Katha - finding your nicheAbout the author: Katha von Dessien is a TCK, who spent some of her teenage years in Uganda and South Africa. She is now based in Germany finishing her teaching degree. More stories and thoughts she shares on her personal blog:


When Following Jesus Is a One Way Trip

I met Deanna Davis through blogging, and it was an immediate TCK connection. Deanna writes with honesty and clarity about her faith and her life as a TCK/ATCK. I think you’ll love this piece by her: “When Following Jesus is a One Way Trip”. There is more information about Deanna at the end of the post along with a link to her blog. Enjoy!

While living in Germany for several years, I was painfully aware of the fact that I wasn’t German.

Us at the airport in Leipzig in 2008, saying goodbye to more than just our friends.

If the language and culture were not daily reminders for me, then the Germans certainly were. It isn’t that my German friends didn’t genuinely love and value me. I know they did. But one of them let a revealing Freudian slip pass once that marked me. I forget the context of the conversation, but at some point she said, “Well, you know Deanna, when we (meaning Germans) talk about you…”.

I’m sure the dot dot dots were positive. And I guess I should be flattered that people cared enough to make me a subject of conversation. But all I heard was, “You guys talk about me? When I’m not there?” The meaning was clear. They were German, and when the Germans got together, I wasn’t one of them. I was the American on the outside. I didn’t really belong. Not like the Germans did anyway.

This wasn’t unexpected. Of course in my head I knew I wasn’t German. It’s just that I had made such a tremendous effort and so many sacrifices to try to fit in. It broke my heart to realize the place I’d called home for the last few years wasn’t really home.

Then there was the time we were back in the States over the holidays for the first time in years, sitting in our big-suburban-cookie-cutter church’s Sunday morning extravaganza. And I knew in that moment, in fact, I think my heart even used these words, “This isn’t home anymore”. The styles, the themes, the subjects of conversation. None of it spoke to me. The connecting points were gone and I remember feeling so out-of-place that I wept. My home wasn’t home anymore.

It was an “Oh cr@p!” moment for me. Was this what Jesus had asked me to give up as I followed Him overseas? I didn’t belong in Germany – and now I didn’t belong in the states either.

Had following Jesus made me homeless?

I can see now it was one of the unexpected costs of following Jesus. What before had been comfortable, normal and “mine” was no longer so. He had changed me. Changed my heart, the things I like, the things I got emotional about, the things I wanted to talk about, the relationships that anchored me, the very definition of words in my heart like home, success, normal, enough. I wasn’t the same person who had left America with Jesus a few years earlier. I had returned quite different – with more of Jesus and less of me. Not American. Not German. Homeless. And there was no going back.

I am coming to realize that sometimes following Jesus is a “forward-only” proposition. It is a one way trip. I can never again be the person I once was. I can never fully return to the relationships I had.  What used to satisfy or make me happy doesn’t anymore. And it has taken me the last 3 years to figure out something of what this means in my life.

It means that Jesus loves me too much to let me remain unchanged as I followed Him.  He loves me too much to let me return to the “me” I was before He and I started walking together. And we are never going back.

Deanna Davis is an ATCK (Adult Third Culture Kid) who grew up in a military family and lived and traveled around the globe. She is also a writer and blogger interested in the intersections between the eternal and the now. You can read more of her work at Intersections, her personal blog. The quote below gives a little glimpse into what she loves!

“If I could do anything I wanted with a day I’d spend most of it walking through a really beautiful place, reading something intellectually challenging, eating something spicy and then talking it over with someone I love.”