When a Stranger Returns

I was reading John S. Burnett’s Where Soldiers Fear To Tread today and came across a passage that resonated with me.  The book is his personal story of his time as a relief worker in Somalia during the 1997-98 flood relief operations.  His story is one of survival, everyday heroics, and the struggle to find his purpose in the chaos.

While working to begin river operations in the Jubba Region (Southern Somalia) based out of Kismayo, he meets another relief worker who comes to equip his speedboat with a HF radio.  This man, Mike Dunne, had just come from the conflict in Kosovo where he was equipping the UN Peacekeeping forces with communications and was eager to get the job completed and get out of Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world.  Through their conversation, Dunne mentions that the WFP (World Food Program) had begun training people how to cope.  The following exchange took place:

“Cope? I can cope.”
“How do you know? You haven’t left yet. We all think we can handle it. If you are one in a million who is not affected by this [edit], then you got something missing. No, you wait until you try to return to normal life. It is the withdrawal, mate, going home, trying to pick up where you left off. That is when you see yourself [edit]. They say you are on your own in the field, but believe me, you are on your own when you get back home.”

You see, this is something we all miss.  How do you pick up the pieces when you return home? Come back to your old life?

This is an issue that is bigger than the military and civilian workers in combat zones, but Missionaries out in the field, National Service Volunteers who leave home to serve for a year or two (or four). You are not the same person you were. Even if you come home tomorrow.  Even if you’ve only been gone for a week or a couple days. Your experiences have changed you.

When I returned from Uganda, the things I saw changed me. I didn’t know how to express the pain, the suffering, the unfiltered joy that I experienced there. How can you find the words to speak about something you have not been able to process? How do you cope with seeing things that you never knew you would experience? Seeing death? Poverty? Being loved unconditionally?

I didn’t know how to cope with it all. Nobody ever told me what it would be like to feel alone. Like nobody else would know what I’ve experienced. Nobody told me how to share, to process, to work through the memories.

Oh, I know my experiences are nothing like Burnett’s in Somalia. I wasn’t facing death each day. I wasn’t in a war zone. Physically.

I know too many people who have returned from the missions field, or from serving with the military, or in AmeriCorps who returned home and have found themselves wandering. Lost among people they used to know, who used to know them. We have changed, our desires and dreams have shifted. Out thoughts return to the struggles we faced, and we can no longer handle the peaceful stillness of how things used to be.

You see, we all return homes as strangers. We all have to figure out how we are going to cope with this new experience.

Many of us have caught the bug. Home is no longer the same, so we continue to wander. We learn how to tell our story, to share these experiences. Some of us get lost within ourselves and others change and adapt more quickly. We learn to cope through writing, sharing, or burring it deep within our hearts, forever holding it in until one day it bursts out in an explosion of creativity, fear, and/or pain.

I share this so that we, as family and friends of those strangers returning to us, know that it will never be easy. No number of classes or trainings will prepare us to return to the lives we once held. And figuring out how we cope with our new selves takes time. So, be patient. Love unconditionally. And give them space to grow into the man or woman they have become.

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