Jet Lag and Heart Lag

by Rachel Pieh Jones on February 2, 2015

Jet lag, sweet terrible jet lag. It leads to entire chocolate bars consumed at three in the morning or entire novels devoured in the first three days after an international flight. Might lead to sickness, crabbiness, headaches, complaints, arguments. Every expatriate knows about jet lag.

Do y’all know about heart lag?

heart lag

Every time I come back to Djibouti or go back to Minnesota I feel shock. And then I feel shock that I feel shock. It has been twelve years, I should be used to the coming and going by now. I thought after a decade the transition would get easier but I find my heart lagging more and more behind my body.

In some ways it does, I know our routine and our stores and our friends and the languages. But in some ways I find the return more jarring than ever, increasingly so. Why?


I expect not to be jarred, not to be shocked. I expect both sides of the ocean to feel normal, and they do. But when those two normals are so far from each other, when one is green and leafy and one is brown and dusty, one sounds like robins and one sounds like the call to prayer, the normality of such variance is shocking.

Deeper Cultural Knowledge

Now I am aware of the deeper differences. I see beyond the tourist-culture-shock things like garbage and the driving and the heat and the clothes. I see the values, the fundamental differences in worldview, the different political structures and family functions and religious practices. And these differences both rub against the deeper things of my soul and resonate with those deeper things. So a much more profound part of my identity experiences the shock.

Personal Change

I have been changed now precisely because of interacting for so many years with this deeper cultural knowledge. Those changes affect the way I act on both sides of the ocean so the transition requires digging deeper to uproot and replant, more struggle.


Coming home instead of going on a trip or returning to a relatively new place changes the way I see it, changes the way I respond to the inundation of the changes. Small developments happen while I’m gone and as a long term expat, I notice them. A corner store turns into a restaurant, the newspaper is under new management, the mosque has a new voice. Home changed in my absence and I have to catch up.

These things could all easily be considered culture shock. But I recently started thinking of them in terms of jet lag. I decided that they are the result of heart lag. The shock factor is there but I know I will move beyond it quickly and I know what resides on the other side – settling, ease, comfortable familiarity. My heart just needs some time to catch up.

We give our bodies time to adjust and people tend to be sympathetic to the traveler who falls asleep in the middle of a sentence at seven p.m. after flying for thirty-eight hours. Let’s give our hearts time to adjust too. Be sympathetic to the traveler (even when it is yourself) who needs a few days for their heart to catch up to their body.

How about you? In what ways do you experience heart lag?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • HEART LAG – such a great term! I know what to expect going between two countries these days, but whenever I come back to the country I’m working in it always takes me several days for my head and heart to catch up with my body. And it’s so difficult to put this into words to explain what’s going on with local friends here and why I always seem a it distant!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks, so glad this resonates!

  • Thank you Rachel for putting a name to what I have been feeling the last week or so since returning from 12 days in NH…

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Cindy. May your heart catch up.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Ahhhh – i know this so well. Thank you for this word-gift. I remember reading an article last year in the NY times about a man coming to the U.S for the first time saying that Culture shock is when the soul takes longer than the body…I think you have given us a word with heart lag. Every time I come back to Cambridge my heart hurts for about a week. And then I settle in. Love this post.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Marilyn. Yes – the soul takes longer than the body. That’s good.

  • Richelle Wright


    Heartache for our Niger home has been so strong (not exactly heart-lag) lately. Maybe that’s partly because hubby is gone, beginning our transition to the new… I’m here with kiddos trying to live the transitory and frantic present… and so much has happened in recent weeks in our Niger home and prayer just doesn’t feel enough and there are so many questions and unknowns there…

    Do you think we ever really recover from heart lag? Or does it just subside for awhile?

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Maybe we don’t ever recover. Or maybe it becomes something else entirely?

    • Marilyn Gardner

      No I don’t think we do. The way a friend put it is that we have “soul in the game” and I think there’s a reason these places continue to haunt our souls and hearts – It leads us to pray, hope, and defend.


    Heart lag….what a great term. I have heart lag when I leave my host country, and when I leave my native country. I have heart lag when I arrive in either. I dream of the other when I am not there. Of course no one understands it fully, including myself. My heart is literally torn between two worlds. If only this lag could be solved by an extra nap or a midnight snack.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Ha, wouldn’t that be nice? I guess we have to sick with the ache instead, or that tearing feeling.


        Hi Rachel, I had to ask myself, after writing that…. Would I really want the lag to go? No, not really. It isn’t easy, but it is where I find The Presence of God. And yes, it is a tearing…leaving my kids, my granddaughter. But when I say “OH Lord, this is hard…” He shows up in power. So, yeah, in my weakness……Strength comes. In my sorrow, Comfort comes. In the scheme of things, I have it pretty easy. Lag or no lag. Glory! 🙂

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          So good Shari. Thanks for writing this. Amen and amen.

  • Wendy

    I don’t know what jet lag is like from personal experience, despite being a missionary for 14 years now. That’s because we’re Australian and work in Japan. There is only one hour difference. But I do know what you mean by giving our hearts and minds a chance to catch up. We usually stop somewhere on the way back to Australia to catch our breath before we have to face family and friends. It should be a holiday, but somehow it often ends up as time when we’re organising things like telecommunications and accommodation-related things.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yes, we need that catch-your-breath-time and its so hard to get it, for many reasons, most of them good.

    • Carolyn

      I can totally resonate. The gap you strategically plan in that’s supposed to give you time to transition actually only gives you time to catch up on all the admin you didn’t have time for in the last crunch of leaving! So, the big question is…when do we rest? Grappling with this this year, exploring “rest” as my one word for 2015… I have so many questions!

  • Sue Kolljeski

    Thank you for this wonderful term, Rachael. I am returning to my beloved Lawra, Ghana in two weeks. I know your words were meant for me. They give me permission to take time to settle back into life.

  • I’ve caught myself feeling guilty about it, but you say it well. There is health and life in giving oneself time to feel the ‘tween worlds, to ponder the old and new things freshly noticed and imbued with meaning. And so I will take that time and be grateful for its richness. Thanks.

  • disqus_URZZ65VoB6

    Wow, thanks for the phrase you coined. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who experiences this, im still in a bit of shock after coming back to the UK from visiting my extended family in India. I’m not missing anyone in particular but I always get this feeling after coming back from India ( and no it’s not a post-holiday depression, as I never have a similar feeling returning from long holidays elsewhere). Wahhhhh!!!

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