A Self-Involved Essay on Money, Fear & Happiness in America
(also featured on The Matador Network)
For reasons too stupid to relate on a public forum, one morning Michael and I were lazing around our hotel room in Hoi An discussing the zombie apocalypse. Or, the potential zombie apocalypse.
The crux of my position on the matter was that there would be a certain point at which it would be better to be dead than to live in such a world. A point at which life and the world you live it in would be so bleak that a bullet or an overdose would be the way to go. Michael, however, disagreed. His answer to my argument was very simply, “there’s plenty of time for death.” That even in a world of utter despair and single-minded survival, why not live? Which, of course, brings up the question of where the value in the lives we lead lies. What are our lives about?
Last year I was trekking through the Andes in Peru with a group of people I had just met. As the days passed and the number of primitive villages we saw mounted, an Israeli man I had befriended asked me the same question about the people we saw.
“What are their lives about?”
As far as we could see, their days consisted of scrounging building materials, firewood and food from the mountains; feeding and killing chickens; boiling water, preparing food, cleaning their homes, caring for their young and procreating. Each day the same. Never an end to the cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, cooking and cleaning. And while it’s possible for me to go home and flip a switch that creates heat, and place a phone call, read out a credit card number and have food delivered to my door, and sign a lease that immediately provides for reliable shelter and have spare time to pursue myriad interests that don’t involve sustaining my physical being, does that reality put me more or less in touch with my humanity? And is “being in touch with my humanity” something I should be concerned with? In short…I wanted to ask that Israeli man, and I wish that I had, what his life is about.
I quit a well paying job in an expensive city to travel through Asia for four months because I have this vague idea that Michael is right. That the point of our lives is extremely simple and can be captured in one line: “there’s plenty of time for death.” If we’re too stupid and limited to understand our own existences, then maybe the best we can do is to collect experiences – to whatever extent we can.
A fair number of people I love and respect considered my decision to be either irresponsible or “awesome, but not something I can do.” Some of them are people who, each morning, for five days in a row each week, wake, shower, put on office-appropriate clothing, get in a car or on a train, drink a coffee in front of a computer screen and do things they don’t enjoy for money. Some of them are people who claim to not only hate their jobs, but their careers, and yet every day get up and go to their offices. Some of them say they like – or even love – their jobs but when questioned about what they would do if money didn’t matter, paint a different picture of the life they would lead than the one they do.
Of course, I’m not talking about everyone.
But I am talking about almost every person I can currently think of who I know well, who works for a corporation and who lives in America. They do it for money, but since I don’t think I know any plutomaniacs (yeah, I just looked that word up), what that really means is that they do it for comfort, for security. And it seems to me this stems from two problems that exist in the country in which I was raised: first, much of what we do is based in fear; second, we’ve been fed a lie about the concept of happiness since we were kids.
I’m a very fearful person. Every time I tone down my personality in front of someone I like, it’s because I’m afraid they won’t like me. Every time I become jealous over a significant other, it’s because I’m afraid that the person I am isn’t worthy or whole without them. Every time I become frustrated with a friend instead of showing that person compassion, it’s because I recognize traits in them that I’m afraid exist within me. Every time I react pridefully instead of humbly to advice, criticism or even a kind word, it’s because I’m afraid that I’m inadequate. Every time I take a job I don’t want, it’s because I’m afraid I’m not talented enough to find another one. And I don’t think I’m alone. I also don’t think this is uniquely American, but I do think it’s a big problem in America because our “success” in life is measured almost wholly externally. As kids, how many of us are urged to search for peaceful, humble, open, quiet, loving, compassionate, honest, sustainable beings? We’re not. We’re urged to save up for a down payment on our first condo. Or, if you were, I think you’re fortunate and, again…rare.
To be clear, I don’t hate America. America has a lot of things right. Things like, infrastructure. Indoor plumbing. Waste management, the First Amendment, a relatively low level of corruption in law enforcement, free schooling for kids (not so in Vietnam). And the fact that I can be a white girl from Texas who lives in a building owned by a Puerto Rican in a traditionally black neighborhood, with a Chinese national who lives across the hallway. In those senses, I love America. But when you’re traveling extensively and asked at least once a day where you’re from, it becomes even more difficult than usual not to wonder how much you identify with the values espoused by the country you name, day after day. And the fact is, I think it’s a country largely obsessed with the pursuit of an externally-sourced happiness that will always elude those who seek it.
We’re told that THE POINT OF OUR LIVES is to create our own happiness. It’s a huge statement that is almost completely taken for granted and accepted as fact in our culture. Yet, how often are you actually in the throws of joy? And if you were always in such a state, would you recognize it as “happiness” or would it simply be the norm of your existence? We’ve created a culture in which almost everyone is obsessed with the idea that they must become Happy. We’ve made it the entire point and it’s a goal that can’t even be achieved in any sustainable fashion. Especially if the means by which you’ve been told you can achieve this, the very point of your existence, is by buying things. Houses, clothes, cars, apartments, area rugs. These are the guiding forces of our culture, these are our deity and our idols.
So we all have these jobs. So that we can chase our own happiness by buying things we don’t really need, that don’t really make us Happy.
All that said, I do realize that people need to make money. Food costs money. Shelter costs money. Educations cost money. And I realize that many of the developments that enrich our lives are a product of Americans who have been committed to good work, to discovery, to building, to curing, to creating beauty. I’m also certainly not a saint – I like to buy things, too. What I’m arguing is that there is a raging imbalance in our country that’s making us miserable and we don’t even know it because we believe the lie. We believe that one day we’ll have worked enough hours and bought enough things and that we’ll be Happy. And we’re afraid not to be because we don’t know what else to be. We don’t know how to be ourselves.
I needed the job I had in order to save up enough money to come on this trip. And when I go home, I’ll need another one. But I will also go home and simplify my life so that the things I need are fewer, the money I need less and the time I spend working more aligned with who I am. And I hope that you will, too. Because there’s plenty of time for death.