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Restlessness, Rootlessness, and Resilience in Expat Life

Restlessness, Rootlessness and Resilience in Expat Life

The following is a brief commentary written by Leigh Matthews, Australian Psychologist and Founder of Therapy in Barcelona,  in response to the story “Restlessness, Rootlessness and Resilience” by Morag Makey in the wonderful and enlightening collection of expat women stories “#Living The Dream: Expat Life Stripped Bare”

In this bittersweet chapter, we encounter a deep dive into the philosophical marrow of expat life. Morag writes: “Despite the apparent fearlessness of a traveller, there is a certain loneliness and isolation. Sometimes, rootlessness can feel like being adrift at sea. Untethered. Blown by the wind, without a clear plan or a certain destination.” 

The expat’s journey is an existential journey. 

Weight is synonymous with “normal” life – the tick-the-box life of house, job, kids, family, one life, one identity, and one country. Lightness, in contrast, the expat choice, involves foregoing fixed meaning and living moment to moment. Life long sojourners, sans roots, become skilled  carriers of this unbearable lightness which might be, as Morag posits, the “secret to life.” 

The eternal outlander lives on the side of the sweet and unbearable lightness of endless polarities: opportunities vs roots; mystery vs familiarity; moving vs returning; freedom vs constraint; chaos vs certainty; flexibility vs stability; experimentation vs normality; ambiguity vs clarity; bravery vs fear. Morag’s story is richly marbled with the vocabulary of polarity, the paradoxes and  impossible choices of the well lived life, which is not an easy life.

Home, in this global life, is not a fixed place; it is a shifting concept explored through movement and adventure. Wherever you go through your life, there you are, and as you move, adventure, excitement, mystery, possibility and freedom move with you – the expat life IS a moveable feast. Home is a moveable feast. Morag exemplifies the way in which expat life revokes the very idea of place as determining belonging. Travel to other selves accompanies travel to other places, and the seasoned expat is capable of embracing this blind yet delicious unknowing and unfolding of self and place.

Expat life is a true reckoning with our existential givens – freedom and associated responsibility, isolation, death and meaning. Unwittingly, expats encounter these existential givens on a frequent basis, experience existential angst and, through these reckonings come to be enfolded by the limitless possibilities in life and the changing nature of meaning and identity. They experience millions of deaths of selves attached to places, friendships fallen by the wayside, missed opportunities, and alternate realities. 

Morag’s narrative illustrates the expat talent for sitting with yet another polarity: the riches and the costs of life unanchored to place. This is the paradox of life itself – with freedom comes choice, comes responsibility – the lead weight of lightness we must carry in our freedom. Freedom can lead to despair and regret and it does, at times, but it also leads to the love of the journey. In the love of the journey comes the cultivation of expat adaptability, flexibility, bravery, reinvention and resilience. In expat land, “home” is not a place, it is something without a fixed meaning, it is a thing, a concept, a feeling, whatever any individual sojourner deems it to be. 

Expats don’t ‘have’ a home, they endlessly ‘explore’ the concept of home. What home is will shift as that individual shifts through life. Indeed, home can be many things at once: we journey with Morag through her various homes:  “the person or place you want to return to, over and over;” “where [you believe your] heart [is] most happy;” and then surrender to the truth of many expats “to know that I have many homes, those I return to, and those that I haven’t known yet.”