The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


I long for home, and to see the day of returning.

—Homer, The Odyssey

At Camp Bastion, the enormous military base that was sprawled across the Iraqi desert between 2006 and 2014, tents were festooned with family photographs, and parcels of homemade cookies arrived daily. Aching for home, as military psychologists are well aware, is as much a reality for soldiers as for six-year-olds at slumber parties. With symptoms including panic attacks, night terrors, dejection and concentration lapses, military psychologists recognize that homesickness in the desert can have fatal consequences.

There is a long history of military men pining for home. Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, sits each day on the shore of Calypso’s idyllic island where he has been trapped for seven years. The hero stares out into the wine-dark sea, great heaving tears staining his cheeks. It’s only because Athena intervenes that he is cured of his stagnation, and builds a raft to sail back to Ithaca. In the early seventeenth century, the debilitating effects of being away from home attracted the attention of medical experts, when an epidemic of fatal homesickness broke out among Swiss mercenary soldiers (see: NOSTALGIA). By the American Civil War the idea that homesickness could create serious illness was so widely accepted that Union army bands were forbidden to play “Home Sweet Home” in case it exacerbated the problem. It was a reason for discharge, since its only known cure was to be sent home. By the end of the Civil War, at least five thousand men had been diagnosed with nostalgia, and seventy-four had died of the wasting and occasional suicides and desertion it caused.

By the end of the First World War, the idea that you could die from homesickness had faded into obscurity. Homesickness no longer appears on the list of medical grounds for discharge from the army. Adventurousness might be part of what makes men and women enlist (“Join the army, see the world!”), and talk of homesickness might seem at odds with the macho military culture, but psychologists also recognize that prolonged distance from home can help create the conditions for serious illnesses like depression and anxiety to thrive. It is expected camaraderie will pull most people through loneliness. But families and friends are also urged to write to help keep up morale, and Skype and Facebook are described in guides for the families of deployed soldiers as “lifelines.” And unlike the early Swiss mercenaries who were banned from singing their national anthems for fear of triggering an attack of nostalgia, in Camp Bastion glimpses of home were built into the fabric of the army base, with franchises offering the sweet bite of a Burger King bun or the tang of a cup of PG Tips. Selling a brief moment of substitute HOMEFULNESS, these small triggers of home salve an ache for familiarity—and keep the desire for loved ones from tipping over into despair.

Homesickness is part of civilian life too, although perhaps it is less readily spoken about. Sufferers have described their fear of being seen as a bit of a wimp. Some psychologists have even called it a taboo, arguing that this further isolation exacerbates already painful feelings and depression-like symptoms. In part, historians believe that the status of homesickness began to decline at the turn of the twentieth century, around the same time that nostalgia began to fade as a medical diagnosis. At this time, a rapidly expanding railway network across Europe was giving people unprecedented opportunities for travel, while a burgeoning tourist industry promoted the desire for movement as both a natural instinct and a celebration of human curiosity (see: WANDERLUST). In this atmosphere, to be away from home and not actively enjoying the experience might well have seemed rather a personal failing.

However, in recent years, there are signs that homesickness may be beginning to be taken more seriously again. In part this is due to the many novels and films of the last twenty years that articulate the experiences of migration. For some, it is punishingly cruel: Edward Said, himself in exile from his Palestinian home, called it an “unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place… the crippling sorrow of estrangement.” Others experience life as a permanent outsider with more conflicted feelings, a new kind of homesickness. Never quite belonging to one place or another, in one breath they ache for some distinctive taste or smell of home, and in the next confess that they couldn’t imagine—no, not even imagine!—going back there to live. As anyone who’s ever gone home for Christmas knows, occasional bouts of sickening for home must be set against the reminder that going back might just make you very sick of it indeed.