Americans Say They Want the Simple, Authentic Life. But America Makes That Almost Impossible
I’ve spent the last year living as a “digital nomad,” working remotely and traveling to a new country every few months, and now I’m back in the United States for Christmas. And while I’m loving seeing my longtime friends for a few weeks — and I’m really, really loving that! — I honestly can’t wait to get out of this country again.
America claims to appreciate a simple, authentic life of community and personal satisfaction. It’s celebrated in everything from Thomas Kincaid paintings to It’s a Wonderful Life — hell, it’s the message of literally every Christmas movie ever made.
Unfortunately, almost every aspect of American life is now arranged in such a way to make a simple, authentic life extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The first sign of trouble came when I stopped into Target. There was so much visual stimulation — everything designed to get me to buy! More! Stuff! — that I felt like I was going to have a seizure. How had I never noticed this before? And this is from a guy who just spent some serious time in Barcelona’s La Boqueria (one of Europe’s most famous public markets).
Driving in America, I find myself assaulted by neon and billboards. Turn on my phone, and everything I say or do is tracked so I can be targeted by corporations to sell! Me! More! Stuff! And I’ve been here for a week, and I’ve already been inundated by those incredibly annoying robocalls where a recorded voice tries to trick you into saying “yes” so they can record you agreeing to some deal or something.
And don’t get me started on the traffic. I’ve been told all my life that a car is the physical embodiment of freedom. I’ve always thought that was bullshit, but it wasn’t until I spent serious time in various European cities, with their fast, efficient, and integrated public transportation systems and incredibly pedestrian-friendly layouts, that I realized what a colossal lie the American system is. There is nothing more frustrating than being in congestion in a car, and yet America has set up a transportation system designed to produce the maximum amount of congestion possible.
True freedom is not needing a car.
Mostly, this is a question of culture. My first week in Italy, I found myself getting annoyed that my fellow residents at the house where I stayed would stop their work most afternoons for a two-hour lunch.
Then after I joined in a few times, I realized that a two-hour lunch cooked by fantastic European chefs with fresh produce and cheese sold in local markets is…ABSOLUTELY FRICKIN’ AWESOME.
Did I get less work done in Italy? Who the hell cares?!
Americans say things like, “On your death bed, you won’t care how much time you spent at the office.” But they really, really, really don’t believe it. Virtually every American workplace expects people to work their asses off. To be available ALL THE TIME. Being way-too-busy and over-extended is a sign of status in America. Living in Seattle, I wasn’t even aware how I participated in that culture too. “You want to do lunch? Well, I’m really busy, so I’ll have to check my calendar. How about four weeks from Tuesday?”
A lot of the rest of the world looks at that and thinks, “You people are flippin’ nuts.”
Now I look at it, and I think that too. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Spontaneity and leisure are good things, not anything to be ashamed of. I no longer even see a grey area on this. The rest of the world is 99% right, and America is 99% wrong.
As for government, in much of the rest of the world, they at least seem to be trying to make the lives of their citizens better. They provide affordable health and childcare, family leave, beautiful public spaces, paid holidays, and healthy environments. Oh, and they’re also thinking about the future — not actively screwing future generations over by exploiting every possible resource and subsidizing the dirtiest, least efficient energies imaginable.
Those annoying robocalls I mentioned before? That never happened in Europe. Why? Because they’re banned. I mean, obviously. What society wouldn’t instantly ban insane crap like this? This is the incredibly low-hanging fruit of civic life.
Meanwhile, Michael and I just got our U.S. health insurance premiums for 2019, which will be almost $15,000. For a crappy bronze plan, with sky-high deductibles. (Thanks to ObamaCare, we have a subsidy which will pay most of that, thank God, but many people don’t. And if we have a good writing year, we’ll have to pay that subsidy back.)
As I’m writing this, I realize my new foreign friends will accuse me of romanticizing the rest of the world. I was told often enough this year that Europe has its own problems — “Boy, do we have problems!” (Although I also had a Dutch friend admit, “Yeah, we really have mostly solved all our social problems in the Netherlands, so we have to invent stupid little stuff to disagree about.”)
Anyway, yeah, sure, the rise of European nationalism and fascism, Brexit, blah, blah, blah. Plus these other countries are more homogeneous than America, and they don’t have such vibrant, innovative economies.
But from my point of view, it looks and feels like the number one priority of America is making billionaires even richer. Which, of course, requires distracting people with stupidity like migrant caravans.
In other places, at least some priority is placed on actually making the lives of everyone better. More importantly, their individual cultures really do celebrate a simple, more authentic life: better food, fewer material possessions, and (much!) more leisure time. Life is enjoyable.
I apologize if this post sounds arrogant or unpatriotic. But I’ve got one life to live, and I’m going to live it, damn it, even if the country where I grew up is determined to make that as difficult as possible.