Sabbaticals bring many benefits. One is obviously time for reflection: on the past, present and future; on what matters; on what has made us who we are. And I can say without hesitation that, for good and sometimes perhaps for ill, our Uganda years made a far greater impact on me than any other four-year period as an adult. Of course, one never realises it at the time. Life goes on, you blithely persevere from one thing to the next, you never stop to think.
It’s standard practice to help returning cross-cultural workers to anticipate the challenges of reentry. Reverse culture shock is common (though in my case, I had far greater culture shock going to South Africa for the first time, while living in Kampala, than I ever did living in East Africa or returning to London – but that’s perhaps a story for another day!).
But some of the trickiest waters to navigate come from the simple fact that the world had carried on regardless of the tumultuous experiences we’d lived through. Well, of course it had. Why should we imagine it otherwise? It takes a certain type of ego to assume the world should stop to admire every time we take a breath. But there is an exquisite sense of isolation for anyone returning home from life-changing exploits.
Youcan show your photos, describe the key moments, send out your newsletters. There’s only so much you can say, and so long you can go on before the subject gets changed (that’s if you’re lucky enough to encounter people who want to know about it in the first place; some seem never to exhibit any curiosity about others). But the simple truth is: while you’ll never be the same again, those at home seem still to be precisely the same. They’re still sitting in the same seats in church, they’re going through the same old routines, they’re pursuing the same old goals. Of course that is nonsense at one level: none of us is today exactly the same person we were yesterday. It is all just a question of degree. Nevertheless, it can be painful and isolating.
We spent the last week watching the extended version of Peter Jackson’s entire Lord of the Rings trilogy – one disc an evening over six nights. It was probably the fourth time of seeing the whole lot (funnily enough, the first time was in Kampala), but it was the first time for our younger child. And it was magnificent – it doesn’t pall (despite my initial reluctance to sit through it again!). I saw all kinds of things I’d not seen before, inevitably.
But one of the most affecting bits this time came right at the end (in Return of the King’s notoriously drawn out but narratively essential last 20 minutes or so).
Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin have returned home at last. They canter into the Shire – the same grumpy old hobbit is sweeping his porch near the edge of Hobbiton and in the Green Dragon pub, people are singing the same old songs and laughing at the same old jokes. The four hobbits sit at their table (I seem to think we see them at the start of the very first movie at the same table) and drink their ale. Of course, outwardly they look identical.
But the scene is pitch-perfect. No one gives them the slightest glance. But they do look at and to each other. Each has endured great terrors; each carries deep scars, mental and physical. They don’t need words. It’s enough just to be together. They smile. They drink. They know.
We certainly didn’t defeat the power of Mordor in our time. But we had our own issues! And so I certainly relate to returning exiles far more readily than I ever did before.
So perhaps there’s a little challenge there. To be more aware of returning exiles. Even to ask a few gentle enquiries about what their time away might have meant can make a big difference. After all, looking after exiles has something of a kingdom resonance to it, does it not?