Saturday 04 February 2023

The recurring human dilemma: “Should I stay or should I go?”

This column first appeared on Malta Today

The Christmas season brings with it a time of reflection which is often the reason why so many fall into an inexplicable melancholy and get a case of the blues.  As the clock tick tocks towards a new year, it Is easy to  be gripped by a sense of panic that time is slipping through our fingers. 

Contrary to our thrilling childhood Christmases when the whole build up was so exciting and it seemed like 25 December would never come, while our fingers itched to tear open the wrapping on those mysteriously shaped presents, adult Christmases feel like they are on steroids. For parents especially, as soon as the scholastic year kicks in and the lack of summer routine changes into a rigid timetable, the days and weeks become a frenzy of a constant “go, go, go”. Each month whooshes by until the first decorations start going up and the whistle is blown on gearing up for Christmas. This is why I find it so annoying that the sight of the first tinsel is spotted earlier and earlier each year – it just accelerates the whole process rather than letting it unfold gradually so that we can look forward to the festivities within their actual season.  In fact, I think part of the reason that we become glum and wonder with sinking hearts, “ my God, where has the year gone?” is precisely because we are seeing wreaths and baubles as early as October.  Time rushes by enough as it is, so why do we need to make it race faster by always looking ahead, rather than slowing it down by savouring and enjoying the act of living in the moment? 

The looming year ahead also causes many to take stock and wonder if they are truly happy at this point in their lives.  Now this can go one of two ways – you can either conclude that on the whole, you have a lot to be grateful for and count your blessings. Alternatively, you can become morose and gloomy, feeling that you have wasted life’s opportunities and that it is too late to do anything about it. 

One of the questions people who are feeling a bit restless and out of sorts at this time of year ask themselves is: should I stay or should I go?

This could refer to anything: from changing a job they hate, to going back to studying, moving house to somewhere more suited to their needs, to moving to another country altogether…and, at the most drastic end of the spectrum, leaving a relationship which is making them unhappy.  There is just something about a calendar year drawing to a close which has a tone of finality to it, and which often spurs people to make certain life-changing decisions. It’s a sort of a ‘now or never’ desperation where they think, “if I don’t leave now, I will never leave”. Making a fresh start at the beginning of a new year, or at least taking a decision in January to do something about one’s circumstances, can feel very satisfying and productive.  In cases where one has been procrastinating, going back and forth over a decision for a long time, taking the bull by the horns and doing something about it feels like one is moving forward towards a more hopeful future. A weight has been lifted off your shoulders, you can breathe – you’re finally going to do it (whatever the “it” may be).  It is definitely preferable to being stuck, miserably, forever in the same place, and always bemoaning one’s fate, with a perpetual sense of regret. 

One such scenario is when people are constantly complaining that they want to leave this island to live somewhere else. Year in, year out, they make dramatic statements, asking no one in particular what they are still doing here, and claiming that they really should leave this ‘shit hole’. Yet, 12 months go by and here they are, still here, still complaining.

A recent survey by EY Malta found that 60% of the country’s young people would rather live in an another European country. A similar survey last year put that percentage at 70%. But saying one wants to leave and actually doing it are two different things, and I am curious about how many of these young people have actually left.   Don’t get me wrong, I think living abroad is an excellent idea and more young people should do it. In fact, the desire to leave a small island (much like the desire to leave a small town) to widen one’s horizons and experience living in other parts of the world is a very natural human reaction and quite understandable.   Malta can be very claustrophobic and I will be the first to agree that this country is riddled with serious, ingrained problems. A lot of its previous charm has been ruined and there seems to be no way of halting further damage.  Yet, while many have indeed packed up and left, never looking back, I suspect that most people who keep ‘threatening’ to leave, never really do so.

There are many reasons for this: first, because without any prospects and the certainty of a steady job in another country, moving lock, stock and barrel would be beyond foolish. We see too many cases of this happening here in reverse, when people land in Malta and start enquiring about employment, a move which I always find breathtaking in its recklessness. But let’s say overseas contacts have been made and a proper job, followed by suitable accommodation, have been lined up; it is the next challenge which tends to prove to be the biggest stumbling block and hits many like a cold, icy shower. Once you emigrate, you have to get used to being completely on your own.  Some people can do this and thrive on it, relishing the freedom and anonymity of a city where no one knows your name (unlike Malta where you bump into someone you know very five minutes).  Others might find the loneliness and lack of familiar faces crippling. It is not that easy to build up a new network of friends or be introduced and welcomed into a social circle in a new country.  It is easier, of course, if you emigrate as a couple or a family, because you have each other to fall back on, but  even this is not enough for some people who cannot handle being away from their immediate family. 

I think we underestimate how convenient it is to have relatives and close friends we can meet up with, especially in our darkest moments, and being alone in another country can often take its toll. The culture shock of a new country also requires one to be able to adapt quickly, although these days the differences are not as stark if one sticks to Europe. Going further afield can require quite a lot of adjustment, and it is no wonder that the original emigrants back in the 50s clung to each other for comfort, creating Maltese communities in certain areas of Australia, Canada and the US.  

Ultimately, those who do take the plunge do so for a variety of reasons – better career opportunities, a brighter future for their children, or just a general yearning for somewhere else which has more nature, a cleaner environment and where the country functions smoothly and lawfully, with discipline rather than a constant flouting of the rules and “who you know”.  The downside is that there are always trade-offs – you might gain in one aspect of your life but have to relinquish other things, so it boils down to priorities. And sometimes the dream you had about being happier if you left this island doesn’t materialise – maybe the overseas job is not as fulfilling as it promised to be, maybe the work environment turns out to be toxic, maybe what on paper is a high salary is gobbled up by the cost of living and you realise you had a better lifestyle in Malta, or maybe you are in a country where the constant cold, grey weather just gets you down. 

But if you wake up every morning cursing this country and can’t find one redeemable quality in living here then yes, you should leave, even if only for a few years (as so many do).  There is nothing worse than living in a perpetual state of anger and rage, only to wake up one morning and realise that life has passed you by.  

Whatever your decision, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

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