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Homesickness in a Time of Global Sickness

By Kenneth Boyd
23 Apr 2020
photograph of woman staring off out window
“Young Blonde Woman Looking Out Window Portrait” by olly18 (via depositphotos)

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic I have received three emails from my apartment building in Toronto telling me that something was broken. First, there was a problem with the “electrical conduits.” Then, a follow-up email reported that while fixing said conduits, a technician noticed that the “step down transformer (low voltage)” was overheating (this is presumably a bad thing). Finally, a week later a section of pipes had to be replaced, and there would be no hot or cold water for the day, possibly longer. Please prepare yourselves by storing additional water in buckets or bathtub, the email read. After service has returned, water may show discoloration.

Thankfully I haven’t had to drink any brown bathtub water, as six months ago I moved to Denmark. In many ways, this is an ideal place to ride out the storm: Denmark has generally been recognized as being proactive and responsible in response to the pandemic, and people here seem to be taking social distancing seriously (for the most part). Like most people though, staying at home so much has started to take a bit of a mental toll, and recently I’ve found myself missing that tiny, broken apartment.

Of course, what I’m really feeling is a kind of homesickness. I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way: coronavirus is keeping people apart from each other, and away from home. As we all know, keeping our distance at a time like this is, ultimately, a good thing. And it’s not like I haven’t been homesick before. But homesickness in a time of global sickness feels different, somehow.

I always find that when feeling lonely and confused there’s nothing quite like a dose of good old philosophical conceptual analysis. Unfortunately, there are not many philosophical treatises on the concept of homesickness, let alone any discussion of the concept at all. In my research I expected to find vigorous debates about the necessary and sufficient conditions for being homesick, but the most I could find was that Heidegger liked to quote the 18th century poet Novalis, who said that “All philosophy is a form of homesickness.” While that sounds profound, I don’t really know what it’s supposed to mean, and I never liked Heidegger anyway.

So maybe there are better places to look for guidance. Psychologists who study homesickness tend to get right to the point. For example:

“Homesickness refers to the commonly experienced state of distress among those who have left their house and home and find themselves in a new and unfamiliar environment.”

While that seems right, it’s not terribly insightful. And while this definition will probably not help you understand your experience any better, at least the potential health risks of homesickness psychologists describe will make you feel a lot worse:

“For example, there are data indicating that [homesickness] is associated with the onset of depression, deficiencies in the immune system, diabetes mellitus, and leukaemia.”

From the point of view of the psychologist, homesickness is one malady among many, one that can be studied empirically, rife with comorbidities. And while the relevant experiments may be well-designed with their p-values significant, the psychologist’s description doesn’t really speak to my personal experience.

Perhaps it might be best to turn to the literary world, instead. One of my favorite descriptions of homesickness comes from Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy, in which he describes his feelings while off at boarding school:

“I was homesick during the whole of my first term at St Peter’s. Homesickness is a bit like seasickness. You don’t know how awful it is till you get it, and when you do, it hits you right in the top of the stomach and you want to die.”

For Dahl, home was still there, the problem just was that he wasn’t. So what’s the solution?

“The only comfort is that both homesickness and seasickness are instantly curable. The first goes away the moment you walk out of the school grounds and the second is forgotten as soon as the ship enters port.”

While Dahl’s feelings are brought about by being far away from something he could, in theory, return to, there’s another sense of homesickness where the home one misses is completely out of reach. For instance, you might feel homesick for your childhood home that is no longer yours or no longer exists, or for a place that you know has changed so significantly in your absence that returning wouldn’t really be the same. Thomas Wolfe, in the aptly titled You Can’t Go Home Again, describes the feeling in the following way:

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Of course, while Wolfe’s character could never go home again, Dahl could (and indeed he did, by faking an appendicitis so he would be sent home to recover). But neither of these descriptions is quite right for the specific kind of homesickness people like me are feeling now. Those who are homesick during the current pandemic aren’t missing a place that no longer exists, but at the same time they also can’t get some temporary relief by getting the next ship back to their home port.

Instead, homesickness at this current moment in time seems to be distinguished by a special kind of anxiety, one that involves knowing what the cure is, but without the knowledge of how long you’ll have to wait to get it. While a lot of discussions of homesickness seem to focus on a feeling of longing, this kind seems to revolve much more around worry.

Does working through the concepts make me feel any better? Hard to say. There is, of course, no shortage of self-care advice available online that might help if you’re in the same position as me, and a lot of it isn’t bad: try to stay connected with friends and family via Skype/Zoom/Whatever, cut yourself some slack if you’re not being super productive at all times, take a stab at making your own bread, etc. And while I’ve tried all of those things, and while they certainly do help, I still can’t help but worry about my little apartment, and think about how nice it will be to set foot inside it again; assuming, of course, that it’s not full of brown water when I get there.

Ken Boyd holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com
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