Loneliness abroad

September 7, 2017

By Richard Slimbach, Professor of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL at Azusa Pacific University.

Rev. 08/17

Being lonely abroad sucks. Period. It’s easy to feel isolated from the rest of the world because, well, in a real sense, you are isolated. Not from the world entirely, but from your world—the place you called home for 20 years; the place where you understood the language and all the cultural cues, effortlessly. Geographic distance isolates us from the people who know us, who love us, who want to be with us. Homesickness, then, is an almost inevitable, although hopefully short-lived, consequence. It can leave us feeling emotionally exhausted, wanting to “sleep it off,” “eat it off” or “Netflix it off.” We try our best to reach out to others, but find that others are busy with their own work lives, family obligations, and friends. In fact, being surrounded by other people sometimes make us feel more homesick.

What can be done?

  1. Don’t waste your sorrows.

Make the most of your mental and emotional pain. Remind yourself that loneliness plays an important role in spiritual development. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer contends that one cannot live well together unless one is also able to live alone. Henri Nouwen, in Reaching Out, also writes of false expectations of finding satisfaction in others:

When our loneliness drives us away from ourselves into the arms of our companions in life, we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces. To wait for moments or places where no pain exists, no separation is felt and where all human restlessness has turned into inner peace is waiting for a dreamworld. No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness.

  1. Don’t medicate the loneliness.

It’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them. Ironically, when we seek to connect with other people (e.g., via Skype or social media) from a position of loneliness, hoping that our relationship with them with satisfy us, we are left even more lonely than when we began. The same is true for other temporary “fixes”: drinking, clubbing, shopping, gambling, porn, etc. None of these are effective ways to overcome homesickness. Nouwen continues:

As long as we are trying to run away from loneliness we are constantly looking for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy. We become the passive victims of a world asking for our idolizing attention. We become dependent on the shifting chain of events leading us into quick changes of mood, capricious behavior and, at times, revengeful violence. Then our life becomes a spastic and often destructive sequence of actions and reactions pulling us away from our inner selves. (p. 34)

  1. Practice stillness.

What, then, is the cure for loneliness? For Nouwen it is the discipline of solitude. Solitude isn’t just about being alone, since we can be lonely while surrounded by people. Nouwen explains:

…the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart; it is an inner quality or attitude that does not depend on physical isolation… It seems more important than ever to stress that solitude is one of the human capacities that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd and in the context of a very active and productive life. A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled aprt by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center. (Reaching Out, p. 25)

So, find a sanctuary somewhere, a place apart. Then practice sitting still and falling in love with the the world around you. This is not so different from finding a faith.

  1. Get out of your room and do something you love.

When we feel lonely, it’s easy to want to isolate in our room. Instead, find something and somewhere that you love. Do you like to dance, play music, or carve wood? Is there a café that serves your favorite coffee or tea drink? Better yet, get out of bed, get dressed, and head out to some public place. (It’s amazing what a change of environment can do.) Play with the children. Strike up conversation with random people. Find non-technological, non-private ways to get involved and feel supported.

  1. Exercise.

Exercise releases endorphins, dopamine, and other feel-good chemicals in your brain. Even a quick 10-minute jog in the park can work wonders. Exercise not only helps you combat homesickness; it also helps keep you physically healthy, which is especially important when you’re feeling emotionally spent. Conversely, bad eating habits and inactivity typically makes you feel lethargic and depressed.

  1. Pray for, and then seek, one good friend.

It’s fine to stay in touch with folks back home. But what you really need is a real-life friend, not a virtual one. National friends at your program site can do wonders. Through them you begin to re-learn your self. True companions not only meet some of our real emotional and social needs; they also connect us to an indigenous social network and (positive) social and recreational activities. They become a shoulder to cry on, a welcoming heart to confide in, someone to understand what you’re going through. Fellow students can also be valuable morale-boosters, but restricting your entire social life to other foreigners is rarely fruitful in terms of long-term cultural adjustment.

  1. Allow hardship to mature us.

All to say, loneliness is a critical dimension of the education abroad experience. It’s where we come to know ourselves better—our vulnerabilities, our insecurities and fears, our dependencies. But it’s also where many of us will get in touch with our Higher Power as the ultimate sense of belonging, intimacy and home. During bouts of acute loneliness, the presence of God seems a million miles away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:47). But Jesus’ desert of loneliness pressed him to seek a deeper experience of God’s presence in the struggle: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The powerlessness we feel during times of loneliness drives us to depend on a Higher Power. In prayer, we don’t change God; we change ourselves. And so it is with the experience of being alone. When we choose to tend and cherish our sorrow rather than to smother it, our consciousness is altered. Emotionally and spiritually we cross from an adolescent to an adult mindset. Not surprisingly, many students, having gone “through the fire,” return to campus and declare, “I finally grew up.”

Few of us ever forget the connect between “travel” and “travail,” and I know that I travel in large part in search of hardship—both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see. (Pico Iyer, “Why We Travel” http://www.worldhum.com/features/travel-stories/why-we-travel-20081213/)

The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain)

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