Debunking the Glorification of Leaving and the Fallacy of a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ Narrative
So many of you read and reached out to a piece I wrote while in hotel quarantine about why I made the decision to quit a “good” job in a pandemic and move my life without any sort of flotation device or parachute to Australia. If you have yet to read it, you can do so here.
I know it’s obnoxious to STILL be going on about it but there are a few things I wanted to say in response to my article because I fear it fell into two of my most-hated tropes of personal writing: the fetishization of “globetrotting” and the two-dimensional gaslighting of “before and after” narratives. The piece talked about uncertainty: about being IN the shit of not knowing up from down, right from wrong, how the dice were going to roll. Yet, by the time the article came out, most of the people who knew me had seen my sporadic Instagram posts or heard my voicenotes sent outside bustling cafés or on beaches at sunset or, crazy as it seems, from a real, glass-clinking, voices-bubbling BAR. They knew I was #thriving and so the piece became tarred with the outcome of “success”.
The gamble had worked, the leap of faith was considered brave because it had paid off. I felt like a phoney shrouded in this unintentional ‘phoenix from the ashes’ narrative. The subtext of the piece became something akin to a highlights reel: you should always follow your dreams, you should be forever out there living your best life, reach for the moon and you’ll land on another frigging milky way because otherwise we don’t really want to know about it. However, what I had really wanted to demonstrate was the moment of the phoenix in flames. The moment between death and rebirth when your world appears to be burning and you have no idea what will survive, what will be left to rebuild.
Instead, in this beautiful spread that truthfully gave me the most gratification I have ever felt, I was nervous the article echoed the smug self-satisfaction of wellness gurus and almost-celebrities who front the weekend magazine covers talking about their “dark times” while posing in impossibly symmetrical interiors and swathes of white linen. They talk from this place of enlightenment, of pure knowing, of simpering nostalgia for their past, struggling self.
Every time I see pieces like that, I find myself getting worked up thinking of someone else who might be sitting in the dark reading it and, instead of feeling seen by some perfect person’s expression of struggle, they feel stifled, silenced, suppressed. White smiles and reclining poses while talking about former strife is not just incongruous to me – it’s insensitive and, I think, negligent. I don’t find comfort in their Sensodyne smiles, I don’t find kinship in this idea of ‘I got through this, you can too’ while they reference yoga and clean eating and morning pages.
Sometimes – not all the time but sometimes – someone’s emergence into the light doesn’t stretch the spotlight further, bringing us all into sweet relief. Sometimes, it just shunts us further into darkness, stretching the chasm between ‘them’ (better, victorious, showered) and ‘us’ (incapable of consuming something more than cereal, catatonic with lethargy, unwashed). It feels insurmountable, the divide between the smiling person’s blow-dried self-assurance and the experience they detail in soundbit sentences and our own hazed confusion. The tectonic abyss between their airbrushed togetherness and the collapsing reader feels impossible to overcome.
The moment between death and rebirth when your world appears to be burning and you have no idea what will survive, what will be left to rebuild.
To me, and perhaps I’m wrong, I don’t find those stories hopeful, I find them toxic and self-serving. In my opinion, all they show is an idiotic and unviable idea of “success” that serves to alienate a reader instead of empower. It’s the trope of before and after which, much like with the befores and afters of diet culture, is aimed to make us all – including the person speaking – feel like shite. It aims to make us feel there is such a thing as right and wrong instead of what I believe as the true and realistic alternative: that there is only ‘being’.
So, I THINK what I am attempting to get at via the most circuitous, ranty route possible, is that I’m afraid my piece veered into this category of ‘look at me’ ostentation. And so, while I got more wonderful messages from that piece than I have for anything else I’ve ever written (CAN I HAVE A BOOK DEAL OR GUARDIAN COLUMN NOW PLEASE?), and even though I brimmed with an unadulterated pride (which NEVER happens – I always find a way to deride myself), I still felt uncomfortable. It felt, I don’t know, showy. In the limits of a wordcount (if I had a penny for every time I’ve emailed an editor to “just check” if there was the possibility to extend by say, 1,000 words?) I’m not sure I gave enough precedence to both the financial and social privilege that has enabled this move for me, and also to how impossibly hard and terrifying the decision was to make.
And so I wanted to now acknowledge that YES, I believe in following your intuition, YES I believe in turning inward instead of outward when defining the kind of life you wish to live but I also acknowledge that the scope with which you can do this is limited. It requires a certain amount of financial agency and social autonomy which many don’t have.
For example, I don’t have any dependents. Nobody depends on me for money, labour, or care. My parents are in good health, I am characteristically sans amour. I am miraculously without children. My life choices affect – apart from, you know, the entire planet because we have personal accountability when it comes to the ecosystems we exist in – very few people. I could afford – in every sense – to make this move and I just want to acknowledge that even though I am the first person to tell you to do the scary thing, make the big move, end the stagnant relationship, quit the horrid job, I recognise that that requires an agency many are deprived of.
Secondly, the piece glorified the idea of “leaving”. When I put a link to the piece on my social media, I did so by referencing life in Ireland right now as trapped and bleak. I did not mean this as a personal comment or condemnation but rather a consolidation of everything I’ve heard and continue to hear from the people I love there. It was my apology for daring to talk of liberation when many feel trapped.
An old friend from school messaged me about it, and told me how, after years of being away and revelling in that being her identifier – “the one who travels” (it is physically impossible for me to relate to this MORE!) – she is now home. Culturally, we would consider this – moving back to the small town, turning in from the world, choosing “small” over “big” – as regression. In fact, I have reconnected with many friends in lockdown, particularly and interestingly from my uni years, who have returned to the tumultuous nest and feel an acute sense of shame and failure in doing so. One, who I berated for being back in Ireland after years abroad and failing to message me, told me his silence sprung from being embarrassed by his return – he was held back by this constructed idea of weakness.
I don’t consider it regression, failure, or a waymarker of weakness we should feel ashamed of (though I perfectly understand – and have been a victim of – these reactions). Neither did my schoolfriend, as she wrote to tell me. Instead, she has found new happiness in ‘staying’ because lockdown has confirmed to her that happiness is something internal rather than external, and that true fulfilment doesn’t come from outside experiences, it comes from a mindset of openness, of curiosity.
I don’t know if it’s our history or geography but as a small nation, Ireland glorifies this. We conflate “making it” with “making it far away”.
I wanted to say something on this because I have long resented the idea that travel is how one “finds themselves”. In my opinion (and I’m aware I say this as someone who travelled extensively as a child/adult and currently has her sticky citizen fingers in two DELICIOUS pies), travelling is often a copout. I don’t think that leaving is necessarily the brave thing and in our Irish tradition of storytelling I am baffled as to why we continue to glorify it. I understand it as a concept of salvation, freedom, or even redemption but I refuse to acknowledge it as the sole portal to this idealised notion of “living”.
In today’s world, I don’t find leaving particularly brave, I find it easy. It is staying that requires more courage. Because to stay is to commit (the bravest and most terrifying thing we can do in an individualist society). To sit in stillness and be with yourself on a crappy November night when there is nothing to do and nowhere to go and no tourist attraction or full moon party to lose yourself in. To have to find new hobbies to entertain yourself when old ones no longer serve you because you can’t deflect to the hedonism of a new city or the passivity of backpacking. To search for new friends in old acquaintances because you recognise that you are growing and the givens no longer satiate. Tell me that is not mega BRAVE. Tell me that doesn’t take immeasurable courage and integrity and self-belief.
Because I have stayed.
I stayed in Ireland when I finished college while so many of my peers – as Arts students tend to do – went to South East Asia, Australia, North America. The question was often asked of me – explicit but more often more implicit – WHY – why would I remain. Polishing glass racks on a rainy Tuesday night in Galway having the same conversation I’d had the night before with the endearing but impossible alcoholic. Knowing every possible walking loop within a 10km radius of me like the back of my hand; having the cinema as the sole recourse to entertainment on a Tuesday night. In that life – which I loved but doubted – there was the pernicious idea I was failing in some way. That I wasn’t making the most of something, I wasn’t brave or wild or spontaneous enough.
Unsurprisingly, given my penchant for bucking the trend, I actually thought I was a motherfucking badass for staying. For being still while figuring out HOW my body wanted to move, instead of where.
It seemed so easy to leave. So easy to reinvent yourself every other day in a hostel. To distract yourself from yourself with a busload of new friends every other week and a new country every other month. So easy to declare yourself a wanderer, to detach from the nitty gritty responsibilities and realities of home life, of relationships, of routine. To not have to check in on relatives or worry about your dog’s bad hip or badger your parents about taking their medication because everyone’s just happy to hear from you and delighted you could make time for them in the vacuum of time zones. And I don’t know if it’s our history or geography but as a small nation, Ireland glorifies this. We conflate “making it” with “making it far away”.
I fear my article added fuel to this particular fire and so I wanted not to apologise (because I meant every word and I’m on a journey where I no longer apologise for being myself xoxo) but contextualise, I guess. And to remind you not to discount your own bravery in simply staying.
In seeing each day through with whatever grace you feel like mustering. And also, for not feeling like you need to justify your happiness in whatever place you call home. I spent years doing it and I think it is FUCKED UP. We are not monolithic creatures. We do not need the same things as our peers or idols or even our family to nourish happiness and I cannot believe I still have to remind myself of this most weeks.
Last night, my friend and I were walking along by the Sydney Opera House and I said to her what I’ve said to several friends since I arrived here – “why did it take me so long to get here?”
It was a rhetorical question, uttered by the impatient part of me who wishes they never needed to sleep because the world is so vast and wonderful that every second not exploring it or attempting to understand it with these writings is a waste. It was said from that part of me who feels physical pain when they see something beautiful, who is sometimes scared of the depth of her lust, her insatiable passion for life and feels bottomless terror that I might not get to live all of it.
I said it because there is a part of me that chastises myself for waiting so goddamn long – I could have been here at 23 instead of enrolling in a Master’s that didn’t bring me joy. I could have been here at 25, instead of freezing in a box room in Phibsborough, doing internships in the Master’s subject that didn’t bring me joy. (Important sidenote: everything else brought me joy, including the novelty of getting dressed up for a 9-5 and having MEETINGS so please don’t read this as unhappiness cause I was BUZZING).
After I’d said it, my friend – because she is a great friend – rolled her eyes. She said, as the bigger, stronger part of me says to this niggling devil’s advocate “but Holz, you couldn’t have.” Because, of course, I have arrived at exactly the right time. This is the way it was always supposed to be, simply because it is.
In conclusion, you don’t need to be going places, TO BE GOING PLACES.
And never trust a person who is constantly leaving*.
*I kind of just wrote that because I wanted a dramatic sign-off but now I’ve said it, I realise it might be the best advice I have ever given. And I give great advice. Oh my goodness, I have just understood so many of my complicated relationships! Ugh, thank you for continuing to give me free therapy.