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?
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Thanks Mark, this is really excellent.
I think it’s fascinating that Tolkien very much portrays the Hobbits’ experience in this regard as both a burden and a privilege – it is simply not possible for the rest of the Shire folk to understand the things they have been through in order to protect their way of life. But the privilege is that of knowing you have providentially been able to be part of something significant in the world.
I often think of this as the burden of the soldier returning home from war to a people he has been trying to protect who cannot imagine the horrors of the experience.
Yes, that’s absolutely spot on
I really appreciated this post, Mark, thank-you!
Thanks Mark. I am drawn back to the last chapters of The Return of the King every 6 months or so where the lessons are drawn out more fully and perhaps a bit differently than the movie. (Like you seem to be, I was glad the movie didn’t take another hour or so to explore them more fully) My most recent reading brought home again some of the things you describe. The “if they only knew” theme that winds throughout the book has been helpful to remind me to listen more deeply in my conversations to the tones of people’s past experiences. The Shire folk lost a lot by not being able to hear that they in fact shared in the big events though they had a different role. And the ending has reminded me that our fellowship in the Cross is precious and that it is essential that we remember it together often. Doing so sometime with you over a pint or so sounds delightful. I hope the day comes when we can.
I certainly hope so too, Paul…
Great thoughts, Mark. It is crazy living in that tension of ‘Everything has changed, but everything has stayed the same’, isn’t it?
While I was on my first 2-year stint as a missionary, Princess Diana died. When I left, everyone thought she was basically a bit of a drama queen, manipulative, self-obsessed and yes, obviously she’d had a rough time, but did she have to keep going on about it? When I returned, she was the patron saint of England (and possibly the world) beloved and cherished by all, an angel beamed down to us from above and able to do no wrong, viciously cut off in her prime by, basically ‘Them’, whoever the baddies of the day might be.
The world looked and sounded the same, but something at the core of it had fundamentally shifted. It was very disorientating to come back into. I still feel somewhat discombobulated at times.
Along with having a few people who are interested in what your time away meant (which can be hard for you to understand, let alone express in the immediate aftermath), I think it’s key to have a few friends you can stay in contact with, like these 4, to just be able to confirm ‘That did happen, didn’t it?’ with.
Great food for thought, thanks!
Hi Mark. I was pointed to your article by a colleague at AIM. I love the Lord of the Rings, so thanks for making this connection with returning missionaries. We’d like to draw it to the attention of our supporters, if that’s OK.
By the way, I used to work at UCCF during Rachel’s time as a staff worker and I got to make my first trip to Africa last summer when I spent just a couple of weeks in Uganda. Only a small taster, but enough to understand better what you have written.
Thanks Alan – I think we met briefly at Forum last year? Anyway, do pass this on to whomever…
Hi Mark. My head nodded all the way through! You capture the experience perfectly and I can identify with it fully. Wonderful link to Lord of the Rings. Just read Viktor Frankl’s “mans search for meaning” in which describes returning to indifference in his home street having survived the concentration camps. A very different scale from what you share here but on a similar vein.
. I was also interested to read Mark Meynal’s blog. Just as a matter of interest, the picture of Mark and his car had particular memories for us. We purchased that car from Mark when they returned to the UK and it is still in AIM use in Arua.
great to hear that the trusty steed is still in action!