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What are our lives really about?

FOR REASONS TOO STUPID to relate in a public forum, one morning my travel companion, Michael, and I were lazing around our hotel room in Hoi An discussing the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

My position on the matter was that there’d be a certain point at which it’d 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 disagreed. His answer to my argument was very simple: “There’s plenty of time for death.” That even in a world of utter despair, why not live? Which brought up the question of where lies the value in the lives we lead. What are our lives about?

* * *

Last year I was trekking the Peruvian Andes with a group of people I’d just met. As the days passed and we saw more and more remote, ‘primitive’-seeming villages, an Israeli man I’d befriended asked me the same question about the people whose homes we were passing through.

“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; making more young. Each day the same. A continual cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, cooking, cleaning.

And while back in the US I can 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 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 I can’t understand my own existence, then maybe the best I can do is collect experiences — to whatever extent I can.

People considered my decision to travel to be either irresponsible or “awesome, but not something I can do.”

A fair number of people I love and respect considered my decision to travel 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 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 — even love — their jobs, but when questioned about what they’d do if money didn’t matter, paint a different picture of the life they’d lead.

I’m 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 mainly do it for money, but since I don’t think I know any plutomaniacs, what that really means is 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.

Fear

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 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 I’m afraid exist within me.

I don’t hate America. For me, America has a lot of things right. Indoor plumbing. Waste management. The First Amendment.

Every time I react with pride instead of humility to advice, criticism, or even a kind word, it’s because I’m afraid 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 strive to become peaceful, humble, open, quiet, loving, compassionate, honest, sustainable beings? Generally, we’re not. We’re urged to save up for a down payment on our first house.

Happiness

I don’t hate America. For me, 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 living across the hallway. In those senses, I love America.

But when I’m traveling extensively and asked at least once a day where I’m from, it becomes even more difficult than usual not to wonder how much I identify with the values espoused by the country I name. 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.

Houses, clothes, cars, apartments, and area rugs. These are my deities and idols.

Culture tells me that the point of my life is to create my own happiness. It’s a huge statement almost completely taken for granted and accepted as fact in our culture. Yet, how often am I actually in the throes of joy? And if I were always in such a state, would I recognize it as ‘happiness,’ or would it simply be the norm of my existence?

I live in a culture in which almost everyone is obsessed with the idea that they must become happy. It seems to be the entire point, and it’s a goal that can’t be achieved in any sustainable fashion. Especially if the means by which I’ve been told I can achieve it is by buying things: houses, clothes, cars, apartments, area rugs. These are the guiding forces of my culture; these are my deities and idols.

I do realize people need to make money. Food costs money. Shelter costs money. Higher education costs money. And I realize many of the developments that enrich our lives are products of Americans who’ve been committed to good work, to discovery, to building, to curing, to creating beauty.

And of course I like to buy things, too. What I’m arguing is there’s a raging imbalance in our country that’s making me miserable, and I don’t even know it because I believe the lie. I believe one day I’ll have worked enough hours and bought enough things to be happy. And I’m afraid not to be because I don’t know what else to be. I don’t know how to be myself.

I needed the job I had in order to save up money to come on this trip. And when I go home, I’ll need another one. But I’ll 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. Because there’s plenty of time for death.

Consciousness

 

About The Author

Amy Benson

Amy fancies herself a writer. When she grows tired of the voices inside her head, she makes the occasional batch of tamales. She blogs here.

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  • Peter Santenello

    Amy,

    Well put. I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel like in America you can be a great spectator: i.e. live in a building owned by Puerto Ricans, have Chinese neighbors and get many types of ethnic food. But America itself lacks roots and depth… and that’s why we need to travel to experience what we don’t have.

    Best,
    Peter

    • Amy Benson

      Thanks, Peter. Agreed…when we realize that the things we’ve been taught to value here are a little flimsy, we’re left with very little else. We’ve got to go east! Happy travels!

    • Erick Cabanban

      The reason for this is America is about 236 years old and is already bigger than any civilization that came before it… this tells you that America is less concerned with culture than with making money

  • Matt Ward

    I’ve been searching for a way to describe these same feelings….Nicely done!

  • Stephanie Yolish

    Super interesting and insightful article Amy. Makes me want to get up and go. Lookin’ forward to reading more from you.

    • Amy Benson

      Thanks Steph, I really appreciate it. And it looks to me like you’re always going…hope Yelp is treating you well.

  • Christian Mulkey

    Fantastic post Amy. Your thoughts are powerful. Continue to propagate your ideas in the face of adversity. When you come back to America, it will be very easy to compromise (to some degree, you kind of have to to avoid being a complete social outcast!) but don’t let that sway your ideals. If you find a beautiful land of like minded people, please let me know. Good luck and best to you!

  • Johnny Koutiolas

    Excellent post. I totally feel your concerns. I love America and it’s people but they just need to get up and travel. It will simply make them a better person. Me myself realise everyday how simple life can be and the same time very beautiful.
    Keep travelling and enriching you mind and your heart.

  • Adam Kopelman

    Very nice article. Just don’t forget that life in those “primitive” villages is probably harder work then most Americans will ever do. It is this luxury that allows us to collect experiences. I always laugh because my wants are always photo/video and travel related. Currently I live the typical 9-5 existence but I feel lucky to not be sacrificing my physical well being to cover my basic needs. This gives our society the ability to develop modern medicine and energy technology, so it is a worthwhile existence if you make it one. Just don’t forget to stop and smell the roses because that’s what life is all about.

    • Amy Benson

      Thanks, Adam, for bringing up this point. It’s an important one. I really dislike it when people rail against the totality of America – as you say, there is a lot of good happening here and certainly people are living privileged lives (and what’s so wrong with that?). I always fear that condescension or ignorance will color my experiences and/or my writing, as I am a product of a first world country and can’t necessarily ever escape that. But to try…all we can do is try… Thanks again for reading.

  • Wendy Cammiso Gargiulo

    That was amazing. So beautifully articulated and you are not alone in many of your thoughts. It beckons us to take a deeper look at ourselves and what it is that we are really searching for in life and how we define happiness. Well done my friend. I look foward to more blogs of self reflection and what you’ve seen in this world we live in together.

    • Danielle McKeegan Mathew

      It was pretty amazing!!!

  • Kaleigh Hinkley

    Beautiful, and I completely agree. This is a big idea for many people including myself: deciding how to balance money and America with spirituality and pride. Finding how much happiness you need instead of how much you can get… Thank you for sharing.

  • Matthew Jurcak

    Amazing article. I want to help teach children the value of generosity and respect. They can learn so much from it and this knowledge is fading in today’s society. To teach them, I’m launching a nonprofit organization. Please visit my site! http://Www.gogetfunding.com/project/teamup-fundraiser

  • Tzu-Wei William Fu

    I’m speechless because you’ve said the words that I repeated to myself every morning when I woke up. I’d look up at the ceiling and just try to recall the dreams I had right before waking up from the humming sounds of machinery downstairs. Then automatically, my mind repeats the words my parents would say to me about making money. ‘Making money’ seems like a..a sickening mantra that indirectly, people repeat to themselves subconsciously. Its imprinted within us already…its gotten to a point, where ‘life is money’ or there’s no happiness if you don’t have money. True, we do need money to have a living…but to let ‘money’ dominate our humanities sense of bliss or the desire to seek what makes us ‘really’ happy, is very sad. I have friends who are millionaires, but everytime despite them showing us what ‘material’ possession they have, their just always constantly buying buying and buying more phones and cars…etc… having alot of money doesn’t give you happiness or hearts contentment.
    In Asia, and I think this may be different from American, kids who have parents running a family business usually are destined by the elders to take over business. Whenever kids have their own will or interest in something, are usually ignored or even discouraged. They’d say that it makes no money, you’ll be poor, you won’t have a good life, etc…basically they expect you to be tied down as being a ‘responsible’ grown up and not doing things that may be different from what they expect you. I know there are alot of young talented people out there with their own talents and passion, but they have to quit…and it hurts me as much as it does to them. I do not want to follow what my parents tell me…I just couldn’t…because I know, if I don’t do something to change where I am…I would be stuck in this situation forever.
    I’m tied down, but whenever I could, I’d always look for an opportunity to take a piece of my happiness with me where-ever I go. I believe that people may one day see what I am talented at, and hopefully I can show them and make people I met happy.

  • Denise Millon

    Thank you for summarizing the majority of my life decisions for the past two years and saving me the trouble of doing so myself. :)

  • Matt Okahata

    Wow! Just wow… Pretty much explains my frustrations and identity complexities.

  • PhilyBlogs

    I can completely relate. I sold my house and quit my job to travel, so don’t be afraid to live the life you want on your own terms. Great post, I look forward to more!

    • My Life in Reverse

      I can relate as well, as I did the same! I’m back home in Vancouver now, but planning my next trip to Central America.

  • Janos Aedin

    There is a massive sense of paralysis and anxiety begotten by a spreading notion/ developing awareness that the world we live in will not sustain itself. We have to re-invent our lives. Our global economic ties and corporate-capitalist-mentality is a broken paradigm… as is our perception of time.

    However, I think the words you have written deal with the more fundamental issue… a choice between love and fear, between openness and isolation, between spirit and ego.

    Be Loving, be Liberated, be Fearless.

  • Joe DeSorte

    That just about sums it up for me.. Awesome Article

  • Jan Zobel

    Ditto!

  • Caleb Paul

    Came to about the same apiphany over a few beers with a stranger one cold night on the beach by the St. Augustine Lighthouse. It was beautiful.

    • Renu Rawat

      ‘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’. Truly said. :)

  • Brittany O’Neill

    Thank you for this incredibly important reminder to be aware of the bigger picture, and what we really want out of our time here. So well put, and very resonant.

  • Michele L Appel

    Thank you for this expose, of sorts – of your heart and mind. I feel very similarly that Americans have a wonderful culture withOUT the stuff. We need people like you, writing about and living about the dream of bringing the other, more creative, friendly, hardworking side to the fore. I hope you keep traveling, even when you’re back home and working again. (Or that you never have to stop if you don’t want to!)

  • Ann Marie Devine

    Very insightful Amy. Happiness is a decision and I prefer to revel in it :) Enjoy your journey!

  • Loz Intransit

    Self examination and experience all plays a part. People make their own journeys and that’s the best way people learn. Apart from materialism, there is also a culture in America of your Oprah’s, Self Help and Therapy.

    Personally life is “sisyphean” in nature. America being as advanced and large as it is, covers the spectrum of expression and response to almost any human ordeal and experience.

  • Kris de Leon

    Quite an excellent post! You’re right about America – we’re conditioned to value the external (i.e. who has the best job, most money, biggest house, etc.), and not develop inner traits like love, compassion and peace. Though I think things are changing, and many Gen Yers value meaningful and fulfilling careers that are aligned with their passion, compared to previous generations.

  • Shalese Maria

    Respect. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I find myself often feeling these ways but brushing it aside as well, out of fear of A lot of things.

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