Last year, 55,982 people had a reason to move to Denmark. Let’s assume the majority were work, asylum, family, study and, for lack of a better term, love. For the rest of us, when faced with “Why Denmark?” we’re usually left with the infinitely witty “The weather”. After a year and a half of fumbling through my own half-truths and complete lies, I stumbled upon an answer that was as vague and pretentious as the Kierkegaard reference I tried to sneak into the name of this column. Or so it seemed.
Existential migration. Perfect isn’t it? Two of the English lexicon’s most misunderstood and misused words grafted on to one another, creating a Wankenstein’s Monster that this over-compensating arts graduate would be proud to bring twitching into existence, if only into casual conversation. Imagine my disappointment when discovering the term came with some incredibly well-considered, thought-provoking and insightful research.
Canadian-born, London-based psychologist and psychotherapist Greg Madison interviewed 20 voluntary migrants from 15 countries. They were asked five questions over a 90-minute session: Could you relate the circumstances of your leaving home?; Why do you think you really left home?; When you reflect upon your time since leaving home, what’s it been like for you?; Do you think about returning home?; And what does it feel like to talk about these things?
Although the questions appear straightforward, Madison discovered the responses consistently reflected themes that could be considered existential (which I will quickly define as an emphasis on the uniqueness of individual human existence in freely making its own self-defining choices). In even loftier terms, the questions revealed a deep and unexplainable desire to exile oneself from ‘home’ for reasons that will ultimately remain elusive.
In Madison’s words, these existential migrants are “grappling with issues of home and belonging in the world generally”, but the real fun starts when we’re asked to chew on concepts such as “home and not-at-home”, “belonging and never quite belonging”, “the world of mystery and the mundane”, “the freedom and suffocation of potential”, “independence and loneliness” and “yearning and loss”. And if it all sounds a little ambiguous, don’t worry. Madison readily and happily admits that his initial research may raise more questions than it answers.
Madison takes the 20 stories he collects and combines them into a single, first-person narrative by drawing from the individual to speak for the whole. His ‘Tale of Existential Migration’ should resonate even if you find yourself here for entirely rational reasons. It concludes nicely with two thoughts though: “The imperative was to follow ‘potential’ as an end in itself, not as a means to material betterment” and “After all is said, there is also optimism and satisfaction and some pride from having followed the mysterious path of the unknown with courage, concurrent with a niggling thought that it might actually have taken more courage to stay.”
I’m obviously oversimplifying Madison’s hard work and research, but if I have a point (which perhaps I don’t) it would be this: whether you’ve lived in Denmark your entire life, trudged here on a career path, or were dragged here by your heartstrings, that haunting feeling of home, whether you’ve found it or not, may never leave you.
As I descend ever further into cliché, this is my final defence of both Denmark and that ‘foreign feeling’. You’re probably an expatriate yourself, you at times have your grievances with this country as well as your delights, but next time you feel like airing your dirty Danish laundry as only we expats can, there’s a seemingly insignificant finding of Madison’s that I found perhaps his most insightful. I’ll paraphrase it for you.
We all attempt to ‘live’ in two homes at once, our adopted and our native, never achieving ‘home’ in either. But when we assign that term ‘home’, we will invariably assign it to wherever we are currently not instead of where we currently are.