Are we lonely or are we experiencing normal human longing?

Late last summer I drove about 900 miles west to where I was born and raised in northwestern Kansas. One a hot August day I headed west on Interstate 70. At Grainfield, Kansas, I turned north on State Highway 23 and drove 15 miles north into Hoxie.

I was born in Hoxie and spent my first 10-and-a-half years in the little rural town of 1200. My Grandpa and Grandma Follis lived a block from our house, and 10 miles north out in the country lived my mom’s parents, my Grandpa and Grandma Jennings.

Late May of 2009 was the last time I had been in Hoxie. In 2009 I joined my mom, my brothers and my sisters as we laid my dad to rest in the cemetery on the north side of town.

When I pulled into Hoxie this time, I recognized it, but in some ways it felt like I had never been there before.

My dad passed at 81, and he is buried alongside my Grandpa and Grandma Follis. My mom will laid to rest beside my dad.

I spent an hour meandering through the cemetery, before having lunch with my 90-year-old uncle and aunt who are retired farmers now living in a senior-assisted facility.

After lunch I poked around for a couple more hours, first tracing the route I took to elementary school and then tracing the route that my siblings and I took to the pool and back during the summer.

No one was with me that day, and I felt a bit lonely. At least that’s what I think I might have called the emotion I felt that day. But it occurred to me that loneliness is sadness because one has no friends or company, and nothing to do. I had plenty to do that day and felt no need for people to be with me that day.

So, I don’t think it was loneliness I felt.

But what was it?

In a recent newsletter by Ethiopian missionary Rachel Jones, she says the loneliness she often feels is more like longing than it is loneliness. She writes: The feeling that I used to think was loneliness is actually a mix of gratitude, joy, longing, nostalgia, contentment, missing. It can be a sweet feeling, even as it brings tears to the eyes. It can be a sad feeling, even when the person feeling it is laughing about a memory or a moment or a friend.

The House I lived in from age 5 to 10 1/2

What Jones writes is much closer to what I felt, especially when I drove by the house my parents built when I was four and lived in until 10-and-a-half. Stopping the car in front of the house, I sat for 4 or 5 minutes, inhaling and exhaling, looking at the house and neighborhood.

I pictured me walking on stilts through the yard, learning to ride a bike with the neighbor boy and roller skating up and down the block with my brothers and sisters.

I drove behind the house and down the alley. Then I circled the block 3 or 4 times. One woman stood in her yard watching me creep along in my car.

In her newsletter, Rachel Jones mentions a word hiraeth, a word I didn’t know. She links to an essay that explains the Welsh word hiraeth (Hee-a-rith, rolling the R.). After I read the intriguing essay, I said to myself: “That’s what I was feeling that day in Hoxie, Kansas.”

Wikipedia defines Hiraeth as:

 A Welsh concept of longing for home. ‘Hiraeth’ is a word which cannot be completely translated, meaning more than solely “missing something” or “missing home.” It implies the meaning of missing a time, an era, or a person – including homesickness for what may not exist any longer. It is associated with the bittersweet memory of missing something or someone, while being grateful of that/ their existence. It can also be used to describe a longing for a homeland, potentially of your ancestors, where you may have never been.

Longing is part of the human experience. Longing has one main line: “We’re not home yet.” We probably shouldn’t be surprised when we hear people say, “I have just never felt at home here.”

Though he doesn’t use the word Hiraeth, writer J.R.R. Tolkien says we all await a final advent (Advent means coming) “where we will experience joy beyond the walls of this world more poignant than grief.”

Wherever we live and to wherever we return, none of us is home until we’re finally home.