Being back in the Pacific Northwest is both good and not as good. It is good because it is beautiful (at least this time of year), safe (relatively), and familiar. It is not as good because it is too familiar. Aside from working at the same type of job in the same city we left six years ago to begin our world travels and become “The Wild Smithberrys,” there are other familiarities too.
Advertisements are familiar. America is definitely the land of materialism. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with a barrage of advertisements trying to coerce us into buying something we probably do not need or really want. Obnoxious neon signs light up businesses all day long. I am amazed that owners feel compelled to keep signs lit even when the stores are closed. Home Depot’s huge, bright orange sign was on at 2:00am! Seriously, is that necessary? Americans see over 1,000 advertisements every day according to a 2012 CBS study. Overload!
Entertainment is familiar. Television has gone from bad to worse. We did not have television when we lived abroad, so we became desensitized to the hypnotic trance of the glowing screen. Did you know that commercials have gone from 13% of air-time in 1958 to 31% today? No wonder I miss out on 9 minutes of original Star Trek re-runs! The all too familiar violence, sex, and drugs theme has only become more common and flagrant in the long list of banal shows aired around the clock for a numb audience.
Working is familiar. The notorious rat-race is still being run. Another world-traveling family, the Bohemian Travelers, wrote a telling blog post about “The Illusion of the American Dream,” which I found an excellent read. We are indoctrinated from the beginning into the belief that a big house, an expensive car, designer clothes, and a job with a fancy title equates to happiness. Ironically, we have the highest divorce rate in the world according to the 2012 U.S. census and are listed by the U.N as only the 12th happiest people in the world in 2013. Also, we spend more per person than anyone else on therapy, ant-depression medication, and counseling according to the AMA. Maybe our plan for universal happiness is not working. However, we still relentlessly continue to claw, trudge, and fight our way up the proverbial corporate ladder at all costs. Is the sacrifice worth it?
The OECD revealed that only workers in Greece, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Israel, Slovakia, Mexico, Russia, Korea, Turkey, and Chile put in more hours per year than U.S. workers in 2012. How is that working for them? Generally speaking, long working hours are associated with lower productivity per hour. Over the course of your lifetime, Americans by far will work far more hours than anyone. The difference is really driven by the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country that has no legal or contractual or collective requirement to provide any minimum amount of annual leave. We work to buy goods we do not truly need to make someone else richer thinking that this makes us happy and fulfilled. Interesting logic.
Food is familiar. In America, we are all about quantity, not quality. The bigger and quicker the food makes us happy. Consequently, I walk around town and see that our waist lines are bigger too. I notice that the food does not taste quite as good as I thought it did before. We do miss European cuisine.
Education is familiar. Our son is finding that high school in America is the same as it has always been. Teachers arbitrarily assign work and grades based off of largely irrelevant, non-applicable, and dis-jointed lessons (and this coming from two award winning veteran teachers). Much to our chagrin, bullying has gotten worse. Despite decades of preventive measures and attention on the subject, the problem has grown. Social media outlets, dis-engaged parents, and increased societal pressures all have attributed to this alarming trend. Education is poised for dramatic and fundamental changes, but there is no money and little support to make them happen.
Politics are familiar. Special interest lobbies dictate what we should think. The NRA will not allow open discourse on gun control, so children continue to die. The extreme polarization between Republicans and Democrats deepens the divide between Americans. We seem to forget quaint, antiquated clichés like “United we stand, divided we fall.” We live in a winner-take-all mentality where compromise is a lost thought.
Before I get emails from uber-conservatives lashing back at me for discussing familiar issues with our society, I am not espousing any anti-American sentiments. Indeed, I served 7 years in the U.S. Navy with 6 months in combat operations in Desert Storm and taught 15 years in public schools. I am extremely patriotic. However, I lament the problems that continue to plague our great nation.
After living and working in Europe and Central America, I understand where the world’s perception of us comes from. We are self-absorbed. We are materialistic. We are work-aholics. We are neglectful of our children. We are far too familiar with these issues. However, we do not collectively do much about them. Why?
I whole-heartedly endorse global education. International travel is an eye-opening experience. I am not talking about the all-inclusive resorts or the whirl-wind tours, but authentic travels. When you shed the familiarity and embrace the unknown, transformation happens. As we say, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Enjoy the journey.