It might have been otherwise

The thing about moving away from home, and especially on your own, is that it gives you a whole new raft of choices, which is both terrifying and liberating. This happens when you move to a new city, but it’s particularly apparent when you pack your bags and move to another country. Suddenly, everything is new again, and even the banal can feel wondrous. Everything you took for granted, the tangible and intangible things that might have given shape to your life, may no longer be there. Aside from you, that is — you’re stuck with yourself wherever you go.

I don’t think I am a particularly courageous person but I’ve been realising this week that it did actually take a bit of courage to move to the other side of the world again and get out of my comfort zone once more. Being here is a heady adventure but it’s also a little scary, truth be told. I’m away from all the usual things that define me — relationships, jobs, hometown. Almost three months since leaving, my life back in Australia feels pretty distant, much more than I thought it would. It’s almost like all of my life before now happened to another person, not the one who is typing this blog post on a cold and rainy evening in a small town in Belgium. And here I’ll recall the brilliant first line from the novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

When you’re away you can completely reinvent yourself, should you choose to, because no one knows you and you can be anyone you want to be. It might be as simple as being more outgoing and hosting parties, whereas back home you spent most nights at home — or perhaps back home you were often out partying and being away from the usual crowd gives you a bit of freedom to turn yourself into someone quieter. Almost certainly one of the best things about being away is that it really forces you to sharpen your social skills, and make new friends and connections. For that reason alone I can’t help but feel that spending solid time away from your hometown is something that everyone should try and do at least once in their life. Being a fish out of water will have it’s fair share of challenges, so of course it’s not always going to be easy. But so many of the most worthwhile things in life aren’t easy.

After living on a high for the past few months, I actually hit a low point this past week, and some long-held fears bubbled to the surface. I started to feel a bit unsure about some of the choices I’ve made in the past, and even started to have a few doubts about who I am as a person. Am I really living my life in the best possible way? Why didn’t I perservere with bioethics and do a PhD ten years ago when I’d already been on that track? If I was so happy back home, why did I decide to leave? What is it about me that makes it so hard for me to settle? It’s probably not that healthy to dwell on such questions for too long but thinking about all that, I realise that although I often yearn for a simpler life, the truth is, I’d be fighting against myself if I didn’t follow through with all of my grand plans and off-tangent ideas. It’s not the kind of life everyone should live — far from it — but this is just the way I stumble through. For now at least.

The other thing I’ve been thinking is that being overseas makes you appreciate that sometimes your choices aren’t really the choices you might think they are. The world is a big place and there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. For example, I’ve heard people say that their favourite language in the world is English — when it’s also the only language they can speak. Yes it is a truly incredible language but it’s a bit of a spurious claim to make that you’re so in love with your mother tongue that you never need to learn another language. Then again, I could be wrong and maybe it is genuinely possible to feel so deeply about the only thing you know — like marrying your first and only love, and never needing to know what it’s like to be with another person.

The book I read during my last week in Sydney and finished on the plane ride out of the country is The paradox of choice and it’s written by a social psychologist named Barry Schwartz. I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for people like me whose lives feel like a long series of complicated choices. Today I revisited the book in light of my current funk and it was a good reality check. Essentially, his argument is that the more choices you have, the more paralysing it can be. You can cut out a lot of stress in your life by knowing when to choose and sticking to those decisions when you make them. Be grateful for the things that you’ve chosen and learn to love a few constraints. It all sounds rather obvious but it really isn’t somehow. It’s easier in theory than in practice.

Recently, a visiting professor from Michigan introduced us to a beautiful, sparse poem by the late poet Jane Kenyon. He used her poem to explain the heart of sociology — in that, perhaps everything we do is a condition of the social situations and relationships and it’s not necessarily the only way — and the poem has come to me right now thinking about my current stage of life. Yes, it might have been otherwise and one day it will be otherwise. But for now this is it.

Otherwise by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.


5 thoughts on “It might have been otherwise

  1. Ah – Sheila – you’re describing a journey. Some are short and quick and some are long and far. Who knows where each will really take you – and that’s the fun of it all.

  2. It is hard to leave all the ‘knowns’ of home and embrace the unknowns of a world outside your usual habits. But it is bracing, it reminds you who you are and well as who you want to be.
    I mentioned to a lovely Australian anthropologist friend of mine who is living in Maastrich (I think I have spelled that wrong) that I know someone living nearby. Send me an email if you’d like to get linked up with her.
    She is doing a project on the anthropology of medical sounds and has interests medical anthropology, bio-ethics and reading. She’s an ex-Melbournite working in Europe for a few years ..about your age…full of ideas.

  3. Oh Sheila, your words could have come from my diary when I moved to live in Hanoi in 1994! As for your ‘why’ questions – I’m still asking them. And I’m still marching to the beat of a different drummer – literally, in fact, as I start Japanese drumming classes.
    Enjoy the journey

  4. On my last trip I met a people who were accustomed and seemingly accomplished at travelling on their own but also some who were very interested in what I was doing. i think they were somewhat fearful but were also interested to try. For me, I had to try so I could find out if could do it. I would hate to live with the ‘I wish I had had a go at travelling by myself’
    Being out of the comfort zone and alone leaves space to look at the darker thoughts. I suggest they need an occasional airing, wounds can fester if not examined, examination may lead to discarding some of them as they are out of date, or looking at self in a new light perhaps a kinder one.

    Some of us are always going to march to a different drum. That is who we are. Just as well these people exist.

    A bigger worry is the imperative to ‘keep on dancing to keep the tigers at bay’.

    Be kind to yourself.


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