Monday, February 8, 2016

Are Americans ashamed of being human?

When I first came to Mallorca to collaborate with some of my Spanish colleagues, I had no idea what the experience was going to be like.  Over the years, Mallorca has become like a second home to me.  Thanks to my profession, I've had many opportunities to travel around the world and experience first hand the way people live in their own homes.  Where this has led me is the conclusion that Americans seem have a lot of trouble with being human - not all of them, of course.  Europeans, on the other hand, generally seem much more involved with simple human pleasures and have no shame about indulging in them - it's about quality, not quantity:  allowing yourself to luxuriate in a great cup of coffee, a particularly delicious meal, a marvelous glass of wine, beautiful music, a superb croissant so good it needs no additional butter or topping.  I enjoy the widespread outdoor patios of bars and restaurants where customers can just hang and watch people as they sip a drink, perhaps to meet some of their friends passing by.

The apparent reluctance to slow down and really enjoy being a human in the US might be, at least in part, a product of religious puritanism, but that can't be the whole issue.  I'm not sure I have an adequate explanation, but a lot of has to do with our mostly unfettered ability to move about the country as we seek our destiny.  Children grow up and leave the home more or less permanently, pursuing their careers.  Extended families live mostly in widely scattered places, seeing each other only occasionally and on rare special occasions (like reunions, weddings, and sadly, funerals).  People live voluntarily shut up in their own homes, perhaps staring out the window with an AR-15 in fear of assault by some unknown menace, or spending hours watching TV, or arguing with trolls on social media.

We shop in giant superstores these days where the biggest issue is price, not quality.  We exult in paying less, even as we find we also enjoy it less and that quality has suffered.  Local businesses run by our neighbors go belly-up in the face of unfettered "capitalism" driving the competition out of the market.  The family farm is mostly gone in the face of absentee land ownership and corporate agribusinesses.  We work extra long hours, perhaps even at the expense of our own families.  We can't seem find the time to sit back and smell the flowers.  Our vacations often consist of rushing from place to place trying to check items off a bucket list, with relatively little relaxation as we hustle from one landmark to another.

I've had some of the best times of my life with my Boy Scout "family".  Thanks to my son wanting to be a Boy Scout, I found myself using most of my annual leave for the first time, enjoying the company of friends as we tried to help young men grow up to be responsible adults through hiking and camping experiences.  I had some real vacations with Scout friends where we actually relaxed and just enjoyed the simple beauty of southwest Texas high country (near Fort Davis, TX).  We didn't rush about trying to visit all the obligatory sights ... we mostly chatted with our friends, took afternoon naps, had a home-cooked supper, and watched the skies change hour by hour on the porch.

During my stay on Mallorca, my colleagues were hard-working during the day - as hard-working as any American.  But when they weren't at work, they had a lot of social interaction outside of the workplace.  Together, they attended festivals, had group cook-outs, visited the beaches, enjoyed the experience of eating, drinking, and socializing in local bars.  They walked to many of their destinations as the typical European city is more compact than the sprawling metroplexes of the US.  During festivals, there were parades, dressing in traditional regional attire, dancing, bands, fires on the street that eventually burned down to coals for grilling, etc.  There was so much going on that it would be impossible to sleep, so virtually everyone participated.  Bars in Europe are very different from bars in the US, which seem primarily dedicated for people to get drunk - European bars are social gathering places for everyone, including the children.  Bars are where you get out and meet your neighbors, including people who don't even drink alcohol at all!  When regulars walk in, they're greeted with good-natured kidding and open hearts.  Everyone knows everyone else from the simple means of frequent shared experiences.

When I was a graduate student, I had a circle of friends, and we interacted outside of the university as a group on many occasions when we weren't buried in our studies.  Everyone in the group contributed to the collective costs of the occasion and no one was keeping score on who spent what amount.  What mattered was that we enjoyed each other's company.  Sometimes, we would visit our friends individually, perhaps just because we wanted to chat - no nefarious purposes, no hidden agendas, no particular reason other than being with a friend was always a good thing.  We were open and vulnerable, not paranoid and looking for reasons to be fearful.  I must be doing something wrong, because this sort of experience has mostly disappeared from my life.

Just ask yourself: of all the people in your immediate vicinity, how many are family?  How many of them have you known for most of your life?  How often do you stop in and chat with your friends just for the pleasure of their company?  When was the last time you had a cup of coffee you really enjoyed?  How many of your neighbors do you know and visit with regularly?  When was the last time you danced in public?

Humans are social animals.  We all share certain pleasures and sharing them with friends and family is very special.  We Americans are in serious need of learning how to have fun and truly enjoy our lives, as the Europeans do.