An article recently appeared in the New York Times which caught my attention for obvious reasons. The Bargain You Make Living in America May No Longer Hold was written by an opinion piece editor who writes mostly about politics and so I almost didn’t read it because, honestly, I’m sick of politics (American or elsewhere) in the same way I get sick of refried beans the moment after cleaning my plate completely of them (please don’t ask).
I’ve tried to avoid both since becoming an immigrant to Italy last May and am embarrassed to report I’ve succeeded in neither. The smashed beans is inexcusable (seriously), and honestly, were it not for work related reasons and the fact that our three children still live in the US, I’d be better off cancelling all of my online subscriptions and put that money toward books (here’s an excellent one I just finished) and other publications that feature topics I’m interested in as opposed to letting someone else select them for me (no, Meta, I don’t care to know how to take better care of my plants, nor am I into easy hacks to take care of my car, and I’m certainly not shopping at Shein).
Incidentally, here are some of the topics that are more pertinent to who I am, if anyone would like to point the internet in the right direction.
If after you take a peak you’re feeling inspired to conduct your own similar analysis, here is a link to find more information.
Anyway, as the title suggests, the NYTime’s piece explores the possible breakdown of the contract between the American Citizen and the State and while it may seem at first to be a bit off topic to the point of this newsletter, which is to encourage us all to cut through the bullshit we’re taught about life in order to better find our place in the world, but that also includes evaluating who and what in the hell might be standing in out way.
“Here’s the American bargain,” the author writes: “less for more. Less from the government, in exchange for more of yourself. More privacy, more speech, more ability to move wherever you might want to go and to associate with whomever you like”.
Less for more longer, Pleasure Without the Pain
I’m not sure I agree with that wholeheartedly as it seems the kind of formula that applies to only one class of citizen, but, sure, okay, less for more. “Even if it’s not true for all,” the author underscores, “the premise holds: that a person can be in one part of this big country, get into a car and get away”. Certainly moving for political reasons is not new in America and now, as the country has become even more geographically polarized, the reaction seems even more extreme. And I understand why. Having people you agree with as neighbors sure makes for a much more chill barbeque.
But the real reason I’m bringing this up here now is to pose the question: Does any of that matter? In terms of happiness, can you still find joy despite a government—Federal or State—or a crappy neighbor, for that matter, all of whom can seem hell bent on intervening in what were until recently very private, personal decisions?
For instance, we used to display the American flag outside our house. It wasn’t a big deal, our bank had given us one for taking out a mortgage (which must be, apparently, a very patriotic thing to do?) and since Franca and I had met in the US Army it felt like the right thing to do. Our ouroboros, if you will. A symbol of our unity born of a time and place we had both come to understand existed as reward to the corrupt self-interest of a few with untold, unbridled destruction. Valor. Vigilance. Justice. All just words fostering unquestioned patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel.
And so at one point instead of replacing the wind-tattered one we had been flying we simply took it down and then didn’t. Our thinking had little to do with some sense of retaliation. We don’t really see ourselves as representative of one extreme or the other. We’re on the side of Let’s-not-fucking-kill-people-or-the-planet. Flying a flag outside our house had simply become a thing we stopped doing, for what good is a symbol if not provisional? Times change, so, too, should the things in which we find value.
Which is all to say, in support of the NYT’s article, I would definitely be on the side of not moving here, or moving away from there if I lived there. So, yes, maybe she has a point. But again, the question begs: Will moving make me happier or even live longer?
There have been plenty of studies conducted that suggest where you live might influence longevity, but many of these were centered on communities located in economically and socially disadvantaged urban areas, places where people were already showing signs of depression, which, we all know, does not encourage living longer. Even were that not the case, living longer does not equate to living happier. In a lot of cases, it’s the opposite, as the pain of aging outweighs the pleasure.
I myself have written about the joys of living in a small town and find myself still referring to it, despite having moved halfway around the world, because the town we moved to in Sicily is roughly the small size as the one we left in the US, so my argument still applies. The question is are our lives better here because it’s here?
The Geographic Cure
Both Franca and I would say, yes, with an * added for the three living beings we miss dearly, but let’s be clear, the paint has yet to fully dry on our relocation. We’re still learning things about our new hometown and at the same still churn nostalgic for parts of our old one. The latter enjoys a level of intimate knowledge the first has yet to render and psychology would advise, Don’t count your eggs before they’re hatched.
Setting aside, briefly, the huge do-over moving to Sicily has offered us in terms of how we eat, what we do with our time, on what and how much we spend money, which have all made us feel happier, what happens as we learn that it’s not quite everything we’d imagined. When the luster of paradise fades to the squeal of a two-stroke engine traversing the cobblestone street in the early morning hours outside our bedroom window. Or a raging north wind brings chills and flashbacks to the Atlantic hurricane season. Or the tranquil serenity of a quiet afternoon stroll comes unmoored from its setting by the selfish disregard of some unseen, asshole passersby dropping whatever trash they had on their person in the middle of the street.
I could go on but what’s the point? You’ve all seen this yourselves, either in the place you live now, or where you lived before. And you’ll see it again if and when you move. The psychologist Danny Kahneman called this a “focusing illusion”, which says that people tend to believe that easily observable differences between places (better food, close to water, 300 days of sunshine, etc.) will matter more than they do in reality.
Have we found this to be the case? Not yet, but there’s a chance that one day we will grow tired of the fierce wind or the endless scraps of garbage or just find ourselves nostalgic for a good old fashion southern summer thunderstorm. And who knows, maybe one day, we’ll even see fit to fly an updated, more representative symbol from our flagpole.