The Lie about Flight
Stories are powerful things.
Armed with a good narrative, a belief about the way the world is, one can endure a surprising amount of tribulation. Stories become a hope we cast our eyes up towards during the low moments; something that tugs us through the mess, arranging it into some sort of meaning in its wake.
If it’s a truly good one, rich in significance and persistently asserted — by friends, family or the media we consume — one can also endure a remarkable number of experiences that challenge its truth, without ever wavering.
So, it makes sense that I could drink countless coffees alone and bear numerous Saturday afternoons that seemed to thrum with sharp solitude. That I could throw myself into room after room of foreign faces and flimsy conversation and dismiss the painful loneliness of it because, as the nomadic narrative went, it was better because it was somewhere else.
They say people make the place and the truth of that was easy to see there. The city so untethered and young and restless and I shouldn’t have been surprised because that was the point.
To move in your twenties is to exercise that thoughtless freedom, revel in the youth and individuality and liberty of it all. I guess I didn’t realise these experiences came at a cost. That you can’t have total freedom and the deep and steady contentment that comes from remaining, enduring.
So, we practice collective amnesia towards the majority of history, where consistency, familiarity and ritual were aspirational and instead act as though these are things to be escaped, outpaced and avoided at all costs. Instead, taking up a tireless dedication to ceaseless motion.
I know I write to try and justify the desire to come home. I’m gathering up reasons why coming back isn’t necessarily a backslide, why trading the overseas city for a hometown can be something other than failure.
Because the dream of flight looks different once you’re living it; better in some ways, worse in others. The clean slate seems brighter, the rusted parts of yourself shift and change with dizzying ease; there’s no one to say you’ve changed. Whoever you are today is who you’ve always been in the eyes of those who don’t know you. We’re intimately familiar with these golden linings. What isn’t disclosed is the cloud it’s around; the deep lonliness and stubborn shallowness.
The fact that, yes, being tied to nothing means you’re not restrained, but you’re not attached to anything sturdier than yourself. Which is pretty damn unstable when the stormy moments hit.
It felt sudden, but looking back, the story about flight broke apart over months of hairline fractures. Little chips when reality bumped against how I thought it would be.
Then one day, the scales tipped and it became more lie than story. So I booked a ticket, got on a plane. Tore airport tags off worn bags, tossed passports into draws and prepared to be asked why by those who still believed struggling overseas was superior to flourishing here.
“It’s not because I couldn’t hack it,” I’d say. “This is actually, objectively, the better place. The better choice.”
In the quiet moments, I questioned how true this was. Or if, just like when I moved, I simply chose a narrative that fit the present circumstance.
Yet as time goes on, the more I believe the story I was told was always, if not a lie, a half-truth.
We all know how the story about flight goes; contentment is a terrible thing; almost always synonymous with a hometown. The city from which you came is a graveyard for the good life, where big dreams go to die and it’s a life of constant transience between big cities that will give us enduring joy. Go and stay gone, because even if it’s worse, it’s better because it’s somewhere else.
Funny how quick we are to question someone’s return, but never why we think leaving is inherently better.
Because, it was in that metropolitan city, the one of unfettered freedom, filled with equally ephemeral souls there for a good time, never a long time, where I realised the people I knew who were so deeply content with life were the ones living supposedly ‘mundane’ lives.
The ones who hadn’t skipped countries like river stones, prescribing postcodes like silver bullets for internal troubles. Instead, they pursued the thick, rich pleasure of dwelling. Living testaments to Marcel Proust’s over-quoted idea that “the real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Herein lies the truth never disclosed in the story about flight; there is freedom in going and staying, they just look different.
Being bound to something invokes it’s own kind of freedom. Committed to a location, loyal to a community, allegiant to something larger than yourself, you’re free from perpetual options and indecision. Spared from an obligation to novelty through movement.
I’m the last to deny the value new places have; whether it’s a suburb or a country. But there is a difference between it being the easy way to ‘voyage’ and being the only way.
If this recent revelation sounds steadily held, let me assure you it’s not. The story around flight has held so strong for so long, it’s un-shakability, is because it contains a kernel of truth; our innate desire to transcend.
Some may feel it more strongly than others; a sense that, as the cringy Instagram posts go, ‘the mountains are calling and I must go.’
At a standstill in commuter traffic, wrestling with the jammed dishwasher door, packing lunch, booking in a WOF appointment; it’s often life’s most necessary and mundane moments when the feeling hits. An unpredictable suffocation that tugs the mind towards the inevitable urge to burn your entire life to the ground and run away.
The flight narrative pathologizes this as a symptom of a substandard life, for which the only cure is flight. What I know now is that this isn’t a warning sign of a mediocre life but an inherent quality of any life.
As corporal beings with boundless minds, humans have always reckoned with a hunger for transcendence. We often jump to travel as a means, but the momentum has historically been outworked in countless other ways, from mounting Everest to composing a song, dosing up on drugs or simply day-dreaming at a desk.
Popular discourse depicts moving overseas as the height of individuality and open-mindedness. It’s delightfully ironic to consider how, occasionally, it’s the very opposite. Tempting as it may be to believe otherwise, travel doesn’t spare you from commitment or monotony any more than staying in your hometown does.
This isn’t to say anyone who goes abroad is merely pursuing a cliched, uninspired path of transcendence (something that would sound awfully resentful coming from a person who returned home). But rather that, when it comes to the universal ambition to eclipse what is familiar, there are many more paths than we may think.
One year, one pandemic and one full-time job later and I’m tied firmly to one place. Not free of those urges to go, but using them as fuel to explore paths that don’t involve flight. More subtle, more steady, but no less able to give us that incomparable thrill of seeing with new eyes.