The Therapy of Escape

I write this in Moscow, where I am back for a week. I used to live here, for four years, then I came back to London in July, to write more about psychology.

It is such a different environment here. The main difference, apart from the weather, is the women. It is a completely unusual experience, for a bloke of average looks like me, to have an absolutely stunning girl sit down at the table next to you, and stare at you with wanton audacity.

And yet that is just what happened to me five minutes ago, and what happens frequently here in Moscow. You see fabulously beautiful women, who stare back at you with saucy provocation, daring you to approach them. But reader, I dare not!

Well, I did dare, while I was here…but my attempts at successful relationships with Russian girls were ill-starred. Still, for sheer beauty, I don’t think Russian girls can be beaten.

Anyway, that is not what I wanted to talk about. I want to talk about the therapy of escape. One of the things people with mental health problems often ponder is whether a change of scene would do them good. If they moved away, and lived somewhere else, would they be happier?

I have to say, that in my case, yes, it worked – moving to Moscow made me much happier, and more confident and mature. And I know of other cases where a relocation has had a positive psychological affect.

A friend of mine moved to Latin America some years ago, for example, and is having the time of his life there. He is a different person there. Somehow, his personality blossoms in the social and sexual climate of Latin America, so he becomes some debonair English loverman.

I wouldn’t call myself a loverman in Russia, exactly, but I also was a different person here. Sometimes changing the external conditions of your life, moving abroad, allows you to break out of the old habits of your life and manifest new sides of your personality.

The reason for this is simple – the people you meet abroad don’t know you, so they don’t have preconceived ideas about you. Where you came from, on the contrary, other people have preconceived ideas about you built up ever since you were born, they have a ready-made ‘story’ attached to you, and it can be difficult to avoid those preconceptions. You can find yourself stuck in the role that others project onto you.

Another reason living abroad can be psychologically liberating is that you can sidestep some of the expectations of your culture. You can escape some of the guilt of your culture. That can mean you enjoy a more permissive sex-life (and many expats do), but that’s not really what I mean.

I mean that you can avoid feeling guilty about your career advancement (or lack of), for example. You can avoid feeling guilty about your social life (or lack of), or about staying in on a Friday night. You avoid feeling guilty about not being married, or not having a family, or a mortgage.

You avoid feeling guilty about being an outsider, about not fitting in, because it is not your country, so of course you are an outsider. Being an outsider turns from a badge of shame to a badge of honour – you are an exotic foreigner, a figure of mystique and glamour.

In other words, you escape the feeling of being judged by your ‘peer group’. You no longer look at yourself with the eyes of your ‘imagined community’. You are much more accepting of yourself, in your own terms, because the life you construct abroad is your own life, rather than a life that you were born into.

And if you do occasionally see yourself through the eyes of your family or ‘peer group’ back in the UK, you see yourself through rose-coloured spectacles, as an exciting adventurer living the dream in the far reaches of the world.

So these are some of the ways that living abroad can help you psychologically. I wonder if psychologists or sociologists have written about this at all – how you can escape the discontents of your civilization by leaving that civilization, downgrading, journeying off into wilder realms, as Gauguin did, or Baudelaire, or Robert Louis Stevenson.

Of course, you then have the question…do you stay living abroad, or do you eventually come home? If you stay living in a foreign climate, you can end up going to seed, escaping the guilt of your own culture, but not acquiring the moral habits of your new culture, so you end up tribeless, rootless, amoral, an empty shell, like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Or you can end up living at one remove from life, because the culture in which you live is not your culture, not your language, not your political society, so you are cut off from true membership of society, and often your relationships are at one remove too – with your local girlfriend, with your friends, with your society. Everything is a temporary arrangement, a straw hut.

And if you return to your country, the problems you ran away from may still be there. You may still face the challenge of integrating into your own culture. That challenge might not be any easier after years living abroad. You have to start again, putting down new roots, making new friends, establishing new patterns.

Well, these are the some of the challenges of the therapy of escape. But it is an increasingly popular choice. More and more of us are living expat lives, scattered all over the world. And more and more of us are enjoying it.

We have become, as Jacques Attali put it, a nomad society, travelling the world with the shell on our back. We have multiple selves, living in multiple time-zones.

Does this mean we have no ‘real self’, just an assortment of different roles and personae in different time-zones? Not necessarily. The Stoics put it well. We can be cosmopolitans – citizens of the world – and still have an inner moral sense, something above any tribal loyalties or conventions, that we try to adhere to and obey.

In fact, the more we travel and zone-hop, the more we are exposed to a multicultural and globalized world, the more we must try to create a moral anchor which remains beyond the happenstance of national or local conventions.

So it’s not a therapy of escape, finally. It’s a therapy of recognizing what you really believe in, and what you were simply born into.