In an interview with The Atlantic, Tiffany Watt Smith, author of The Book of Human Emotions, described her research on the role that language plays in our emotional lives. As Smith argues, words not only describe how we feel, they distinctly shape how we understand our feelings. As complex emotional beings, we need nomenclature for fear and self-doubt, longing and desire. In short, we must be taught to explain ourselves to ourselves as well as to others. “One of the emotions I became really interested in when researching the book was homesickness,” Smith described in the interview. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century, homesickness was counted a credible source of physical ailment and even considered a possible cause of death. According to medical records, homesick patients experienced the expected symptoms of depression and fatigue, but they also suffered surprising physical ones, such as sores, pustules, and fevers. In severe cases, sufferers refused to eat, growing so weak as to eventually die. Their doctors labeled their deaths severe cases of nostalgia—from nostos, “homecoming,” and algia, “pain.” (The last mention of “nostalgia” on a death certificate was in 1918.)
Nostalgia may have disappeared from our medical dictionaries, but we have not cured the ache for home. To be human is to know the grief of some paradise lost. Each of us—however happily settled—suffers a foreboding sense of rupture, as if we have been cut off from some hidden source of happiness. We are not unlike Lot, the nephew of Abraham, who parts from his uncle upon arriving in Canaan. When given first pick of the land, without any living memory of Eden, Lot scans the horizon and settles in the well-watered Jordan Valley because it bears resemblance to “the garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10). Lot suffered nostalgia—or, as the French would say, maladie du pays: sickness of [a lost] country.
Biblical words related to home can denote physical dwelling, family household, material possessions, as well as geographical and social connections, but these words only hint at the emotional dimensions of the English word home and its cousins in German, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Dutch. In these languages home connotes much more than geography and material reality; home also describes an emotional state of being. For the linguistic ancestors of the Old Norse, home, heima, means more than bricks and mortar. In part, its walls are safety, its windows, welcome. Provided there is intimacy and a sense of belonging, a home can be made in almost any place.
Home represents humanity’s most visceral ache—and our oldest desire.
The Witness of Literature
Instinctive to the witness of Western Literature is the longing for home. Odysseus spent ten years fighting at Troy and another ten years getting home. His son, Telemachus, awaiting his father, defends his mother from the string of suitors wishing against Odysseus’s safe return. He laments his father’s exile: “How I wish I could have been rather son to some fortunate man, whom old age overtook among his possessions.” Telemachus senses the privilege of belonging to a place that serves as witness to our birth and spectator to our death, and understands that home is the place for being recognized, received, remembered. Missed. In the face of death, home, as perceived stability, is one hedge against the terror of the réveil mortel—the wake-up call to mortality. As writer Julian Barnes has put it in his novel Nothing to Be Frightened Of, we live with “the vicious awareness that this is a rented world.” The grass withers, and the flowers fade: ours is an impermanent life. At the very least, home is a steadying consolation when the lights go out.
The novel is a powerful literary witness to human nostalgia: as philosopher and literary critic George Lukacs has written, the novel is the great form of “transcendental homelessness.” This is to say that from Don Quixote to Don DeLillo, the world’s greatest writers are giving voice to our inexorable grief at lostness and our irrepressible joy at being found. Homelessness, whether physical or spiritual, is the terror of the elements and the threat of an angry sky. Home is the dry place we are all searching for. Humans need home.
The Old, Old Story of Home
The biblical narrative begins and ends at home. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, we are hardwired for place and for permanence, for rest and refuge, for presence and protection. We long for home because welcome was our first gift of grace and it will be our last. The setting of our first home and our last home testify to the nature of the embodied story God is writing in human history. Because God’s story begins in a garden and ends in a city, place isn’t incidental to Christian hope, just as bodies aren’t incidental to salvation. God will resurrect our bodies, and he will—finally—bring us home. As Craig Bartholomew, author of Where Mortals Dwell, concludes, “One of the glories of being human and creaturely is to be implaced.” The “fortune” of home, as Homer puts it, is the witness of Genesis and of Revelation. God will never leave any of his children to homelessness.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Christianity Today’s 2015 Book of the Year, Teach Us to Want, which has also been produced as an original video series by RightNow Media. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog and Moody Bible Institute’s Today in the Word. She blogs regularly on her website at jenpollockmichel.com.