Like a pair of old slippers…
The comfort of familiarity isn’t limited to thoughts and feelings. It’s a physical sensation. Seeing, hearing or smelling something that was once everyday and ordinary, but isn’t anymore, is like the reassuring weight of a soothing arm around your shoulders – you can feel the warmth, your muscles relax and tensions dissipate, you lean into it like a hug. If you were hooked up to machines measuring your body’s signals, they would register the alterations in your vital signs as you physically respond to memory…Don’t underestimate its power; it’s like coming home without leaving your present location – you feel a strong sense of belonging. It’s real and immediate.
It happened to me the other night. I was following the UK local elections being dissected on the BBC and a sudden rush of recognition engulfed me, tsunami-style. The effortlessness with which all the pieces fitted into their correct slots to give me a holistic understanding of what was happening was relaxing and enjoyable, like a sedative to my strained senses. Language, tone, situation, facial expression and humor were all grasped instantly. I had forgotten what it felt like to absorb information so intuitively.
On a basic level, we’re hardwired to seek pleasure. So it’s logical that the reassuring feelings brought about by familiarity encourage us to stick to what we know, to stay where we belong. But what happens when you have a strong sense of adventure and a drive to explore?
You become torn.
A journey of self-discovery…
When you move to a new country the heady exhilaration of discovery is addictive. Having all your senses on overload is a buzz and the growing sense of trust in your abilities as you learn to navigate new locations and situations makes you feel more complete as a person than anything ever has before. You bond more tightly with those that matter and life is full of potential, urgency and feeling. Your senses are sharper, you’re fully alive – you’re a nomadic ninja, travelling the world, living on your wits!
Even when all that calms down and you become more established in your once-exotic locale, there are still things that make your heart swell – that didn’t exist back home – the frequent manifestations of the raw power of nature, the openness of the people, the slower pace of life. How could you ever walk away from those? Give them up and return home?
Losing your place…
It’s easy to hate expatriates. They’ve done what some people only dream of. They didn’t let the excuses tie them down. When people leave the country in search of a better job or life those left behind can feel betrayed, seeing it as a rejection of national/familial loyalty; as if the expat somehow opted out of, and no longer has feelings for, their homeland - “rats deserting a sinking ship.”
Few, neither those that leave nor those left, realise they are embarking on a life of “living on the outside”. It’s one of those things that, once you do it, it can’t be undone. The sense of belonging that grows out of a shared history and context can’t be easily replicated elsewhere. Some people try for years and never achieve it. The space you occupied in your old life is absorbed into the changing landscape of the lives of those you left behind. You give up that comfort forever.
There’s a little part of me, locked away deep inside that cries out for that unquestioned acceptance and instinctive familiarity, like a child crying for their favourite toy. Most of the time she sits quietly, knees drawn up, thumb in mouth, index finger curling over her nose. Then someone asks, “When are you coming home?” and that little voice screams, “Right now! I want it back, that space where I used to fit…” Oh, sometimes it would be so nice to just slip back in; to rest for a minute, take a break.
But I know it’s an illusion, a travelers mirage. That space isn’t real – it exists only in my imagination. In my heart I fear the suffocation, the end to the highs exploring the rest of the world brings. If the space wasn’t enough before, how could it ever be now?
Get used to feeling torn…