Update from Italy: Cultural Musings on the American Work Ethic

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Twice this month, Europeans have ribbed me about Americans hating to take vacations and accepting work conditions that no one else would do in a developed economy. Once in English, and once in Italian, I tried to explain on the spot that in fact Americans would love to take a vacation if they only knew what one was. Well, because you people just love working so much, they replied. Both times, this was said to me; and both times, I felt like I might pass out from frustration, either atop that Alp or in the Tuscan countryside at an outdoor dinner. There were so many layers to this onion that were impossible to peel back before the end of the pétanque round or the primo piatto. It’s been bothering me since and I’ve finally found the time to collect my response into something rather more coherent, and for this I must thank a friend who sent me an essay published on Medium that added fuel to this fire, in which the writer states his rhetorical premise:

Carl Jung, one of the most prolific psychotherapists of the 20th century, remarked that about a third of his cases were suffering from “no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” What happened in modern society to make this state of affairs so widespread?

Okay, first of all, Mr. Writer, Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Carl Jung in Vain, but He appreciates your freshman-level qualifier. Maybe, as the writer answers for us, it’s because we sit around and wait for the universe, or God, to provide us with the life we desire instead of taking the hard road of Work and Will to go after it. The entire article needs a caveat for American culture. Much of the rest of the world does NOT think this way. This piece lays so much blame at the feet of the individual, which is inaccurate and unhelpful. America works Too Hard. There are historic reasons for this. But we’ve painted ourselves now into a pretty corner.

Distance brings perspective, and perspective brings wisdom. But perspective is elusive to many people, be they tied to a place, a career, a life that seems immutable, or some other anchoring object. I think often about the nature of Home and Belonging, and with each passing year in Italy, the struggles and frustrations that I experienced in America somehow arrange themselves into a pattern that reveals clarity and answers. I know that I am lucky to have this gift of distance and time to help me see more clearly my past life, and hopefully offer these observations to those who may continue to find themselves in circumstances now similar to what mine once were, struggling for answers, a way to make this life all work somehow smoothly.

When I lived in America, from 1974 to 2016, minus about a decade for shorter sojourns abroad, my life was ruled by the twin demons of Success and Failure. One I yearned for, the other I dreaded. It started early and often, from kindergarten on. There was little Being, and a lot of Doing and Achieving, preparing me for the Great Machine of the American Career. Why did I need to work so hard, all the time? Make the best grades, do the best projects, come out on top, wreathed with awards and scholarships? Why did my stomach clench for weeks over a low grade, a rejected application? Applying for college and getting through those years were their own sort of values-based purgatory. The more I received, the more hollow I felt. I only knew the How. I did not know the Why. Work or drown. Achieve or die. And for my understanding and compliance, I was rewarded with an oddly gas-lighting label: I was, unfortunately, an Overachiever. I somehow achieved Too Much, and worried too much about achieving Too Little. This, ironically, placed me at risk for being an Underachiever – someone who did not want to achieve at all, and so who achieved, insanely, Nothing!

The only exception to this rule was found in my time abroad, when all the rules changed, the base shifted, the common denominator titled. I understood how a person transplanted to another culture could find herself in possession of past awards and future goals that felt less and less meaningful, seeing as they weren’t shared by 40 or 60 million new neighbors, my temporary compatriots. Many of them, at my ages and various other ages, did express worry about some things, but not the same things I did, and not in the same ways. Scholarships, grades, awards, career, what? In Spain and in France I saw for the first time how these goal posts were nothing more than cultural constructs. They were in no way universally acknowledged. My new, if temporary, cohorts, saw their families on weekends, and whenever possible. They never missed a meal. They partied in moderation. They truly loved their friends. They lived with a sense of place, in a place that loved them back. Of course there were some disadvantages to be found in a life firmly rooted in a town where your family had lived for half a millennium. But the relative advantages included a calmness and a sense of identity that I did not have. Monica, the free radical. Spanish and French people, safe in their cluster at the center, the nuclear family.

No matter. I returned to the US and, anxiety barely in hand, hopped into that hamster wheel, ready to run, to put that education to Good Use. I wanted to work, not just hard, but really hard. I quickly learned that working long days, evenings and weekends for $21,000 a year was little fun, regardless the philanthropic satisfaction and the fact that I was employing my acquired and, back then excellent, Spanish every day, verbal and written with a clientele that did not speak English and was largely illiterate. I could not pace myself. I was there To Achieve. I made some hopeful but terribly rash decisions. Then I burned out and hard. I stopped and started again, heavy on the brake, the gas, the clutch.

What never once occurred to me once, during all that time, was that it wasn’t my fault. I’d been so well trained to swim in the cultural waters that I could not see how implicit expectations were shaping me. My brief insights abroad were now buried in the sands of time. But a few years into post-collegiate Work, I saw very well why I was trained to achieve: in America, if you are not achieving, you are not surviving. If you are super-achieving AND very lucky, maybe you have the life you want. If you are like many, you are failing, and “underachieving,” with only yourself to blame. I fell off the professional ladder a few times between 1996 and 2001, and each time, I blamed myself and hard. For not working hard enough or smart enough, for not being patient enough, for not reading the tea leaves, for not coping well with my office circumstances. I had an expensive healthcare bill that went terrifyingly into collections. The ice was thin beneath my feet, and failed to conceal the still, cold water.

The structural safety that is built in to many countries does not exist in America. There is no guaranteed education, parental leave, childcare. No protected holidays or retirement. Most importantly, for my many rash professional choices, no health insurance. I shake my head now to think that in 2000 I was hired at Microsoft as a professional contractor and there was no healthcare insurance offered. I bought a new health insurance policy from a local organization for $48 dollars a month, in hopes it would stitch me back together if I got in a car wreck on the 520 bridge on the way into Redmond. In America, people move for jobs in decisions that are deemed career choices, but are closer bottom-line decisions based on needs around education, childcare, healthcare, and retirement. We are trained to lean in, to blame ourselves, to shop the self-help section to learn how to deal with depression, anxiety, and more, rather than address the structural issues that directly contribute to American anxiety. Where will I live? What will happen if I or someone in my family become ill or injured? How will I navigate new parenthood with work? Who will look after my kids while I work? Where and how will my kids attend school? Will I ever be able to stop working? What is this thing called a vacation? Will I ever know a moment’s peace? How can I ever afford any of this?

How can I ever afford any of this. Here’s what I want to put a pin in. Even a bright, motivated, hardworking person, with a string of degrees and professional savvy, cannot predict how much life will cost in America in any given year. What is the real cost? We never know. It’s not that we’re all bad at math, or terrible at saving money, or hate vacations: it’s that you cannot predict or budget for life in America. With healthcare alone, bombarded by co-pays, co-insurance, minimum and maximum deductibles, retail pharmacy, and out-of-pocket costs, the only and shocking option left is to try as hard as you can to make as much money as possible in hopes that it’s enough to take care of your needs. Taking jobs further and further away from family, from community, into schools and neighborhoods where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. I haven’t even mentioned entrenched economic inequality or the invisible aquifer of racism that lies beneath the bedrock of American culture. I have not even gone here into my theories about collective cultural inclinations or the great self-sorting of mass migration to America, whereby in certain moments in time specific types of people found themselves , by force or choice, traveling to America to make new homes.

So, America. My fellow Americans. I am here to tell you that it’s not your fault. You are smart, and just fine as people. Americans have yoked ourselves to work over the years, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are structural choices we can make as a society to make life more manageable and more livable, a life in which we build meaningful community and regularly see our parents and children over dinner, in which our children are educated at no (or even reasonable) cost, in which children are looked after and the sick and injured are not blamed for having gotten themselves into this mess, in which older workers are offered a graceful and supported retirement, in which a couple annual holidays a year to genuinely unplug and be with your family are not just possible, but collectively valued. Don’t let anyone tell you that it costs too much and that we could never afford it, in America, still – arguably – for better or worse, the wealthiest country in the world. It just takes some decisions, over time, to build a more just and equitable society.

It’s more likely we’ll remain in Italy to raise our kids here and eventually retire (on what….). I don’t know that anyone in America agrees with me, even as the drawbacks to our collective assumptions are evident in a thousand statistics about housing, food scarcity, education, healthcare, childcare, retirement, and more. I feel guilt about not wanting to return to America to work for change (how American is that? agh). But it’s not my job (agh, more American jingo) to convince people that my vision skews more kind and just, and can result in a greater safety and happiness for all.

Plenty more where this came from. Thanks for reading, if you did, to the end. I tried to organize it as coherently as I could, but no kidding, when someone tells me that Americans work too hard and hate vacations, I could just spit.

Update from Italy: Thoughts on Kabul Etc.

Kuan Yin Goddess of Compassion • Mandalas Life
I offer these observations with a compassionate heart.

I wasn’t even sure who Ezra Klein was until a few months ago. Obviously he is a well-established journalist, but I dismissed him for years as just another glib gadfly with a Twitter obsession and an enormous following, someone whose faint echoes reached me here but whose opinions and conversations formed just more media noise hardly worth examining. My media bubble had become a micro-media-bubble. But this summer I found his podcast. I catch up on news and science when out on my daily stroll, and his conversations are on point for topic and well-tuned for the truly curious. Psychology, neurology, foreign affairs, pandemic. All very lucid and, I have to say, calm. The calmness is what won me. What, he lives in San Francisco? What? He also writes copy for the NYT? I am very, very late to this game, okay. His recent opinion piece about Afghanistan inspired me and got me musing about where my own awareness has intersected with Afghanistan at specific points in my life.

In the summer of 1979, I was five years old, a year younger than my daughter is now. I have a very clear memory of perhaps my first moment of awareness about the greater world, sat in front of the television and watching the tanks roll into Afghanistan. Who is doing this, I asked. I felt sick. The footage showed violent images. Russia, came the reply. This was the same year that the veiled, green-eyed Afghan girl appeared on the cover of National Geographic. The network news came in about the Iranian revolution, the American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree. The second Christmas of the hostages, there were no Christmas cards, the network anchors intoned, as images flickered by: thin, bearded men; machine guns; the embassy. Although I had no context whatsoever for what I was seeing, I empathized with the tragedy of loss on all sides, and I understood that we’d done this to ourselves by somehow being somewhere we were not supposed to be. I asked my parents many questions. I am sure they tried to answer them as best they could.

Then Reagan was elected and my primary education continued and the US continued to send money and arms to the mujahedin. I wondered what a discothèque was because they seemed to be in Europe and get bombed a lot when US soldiers were inside them doing whatever people do in a discothèque. When I was twelve, the US bombed Tripoli and Michelle told everyone in vocal music that Nostradamus had predicted this centuries before in one of his mysterious riddles. To be a suburban white child in the eighties meant to live a safe life while hearing extraordinary news about people in other parts of the world who were not safe at all, and very often made so either directly or indirectly by the actions of my country. The instability in what we call the Middle East. The Achille Lauro. The Pan Am flight over Lockerbie. Sandinistas. Granada. My earlier sensitivity receded into adolescence as the news became nothing more than scrolling wallpaper for my own solipsistic dramas.

Foreign language learning opened a world for me, and as my curiosities were always prelude to actual adventures, I soon ventured well beyond the seeming calm of suburbia in search of backstory, context, and understanding. I made Moroccan friends and shared mint tea with them in Spain. I learned that Communists were not bad people, and that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I started to work in immigration advocacy.

Then 1998. The embassies bombed in Africa. Bin Laden emerged as a name. Al-Quaeda means The Base. The WTO and the Battle in Seattle, with those people dressed up as sea turtles on Capitol Hill. A brief detour for me into the wealthy world of software. 2001, perhaps my most fraught year on record, punctuating my own losses and insecurities with 9/11. I woke up that Tuesday morning, my clock radio blaring the news about the towers tumbling. I thought it was a joke. It was not a joke. I sat in my basement and watched tv with my roommates. My sister-in-law called me on the landline and urged that I not leave the house, everything was very dangerous.

One Sunday morning that month I sat in a pew at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. Before the homily, the priest announced that we had declared war on Afghanistan. The bombs had begun to drop. My heart felt like it landed on the kneeler before me. Not long after, Colin Powell appeared before the UN to make the case for war in Iraq. Yellow cake uranium. WMD. Uganda. In his face I saw a leader co-opted. The apparatchiks clapped their hands. They were going to get their war. The war would pay for itself? Give me a break. I didn’t believe it for a minute. Pure spin. People were clueless. I read the superb historical analysis by Peter Hopkirk on Afghanistan (The Great Game). A federally-employed aunt in DC was full of praise for Rumsfeld. I liked only his quote about known unknowns. Well, spin forges ahead, regardless. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Remember that banner, and W in his military kit, jumping around on that naval destroyer? Good grief.

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia : Hopkirk, Peter:  Amazon.it: Libri
Seriously. Pick it up.

My dreams enlarged; perhaps I could help change things from the inside a sprawling and immensely funded institution. I had worked in Washington. I interviewed twice for the US Foreign Service, but was twice told in the most diplomatic of terms that they did not have the news for me that they thought I might hope to hear. I kept working in immigration, chipping away here and there as I could. I found myself in a position of responsibility as great as I had sought, but in a different context. Once I sat awkwardly in a conference room with a Kurdish delegation as my colleagues apologized on behalf of the US for the entire Iraq debacle. The wallpaper come to life.

There is little changing an institution from the inside. The Inside will change a person, change perspective, sap energy, much like a newly minted lawyer who plans to “go corporate” and remain there only as long as necessary to pay off the student loans prior to getting down to work as a constitutional lawyer, or a pro bono advocate of some noble and worthy cause. You learn plenty on the Inside, but you do not necessarily learn things that help you to act, or act well. You become tired of the inaction. People stop seeing things. You stop seeing things. I got out of the Inside. I felt I had changed nothing. In retrospect I was grateful the Foreign Service never scooped me. We moved abroad. New perspectives, new challenges.

Then Trump was elected. Shock. Art and lit will save us, I was convinced. It was my best strategy. Art and lit might have helped me in that time, but plenty of people suffered and died as our collective moral compass became as hazard as a housefly. I know that many people on the Inside felt they too were able to change nothing, and they left. Friends who were FSOs held out as long as they could and then packed up to take a sabbatical from Foggy Bottom.

Earlier this month as Afghanistan found its way once more into the headlines. No doubt many forgot we were “fighting a war,” and a very expensive one at that. I connected with an old FSO friend in Tanzania who served for years in Kabul with her FSO husband. It’s bad, she said, it’s really bad. She’s stayed on the inside, working for change, doing good. I love her for that. A few days later the 40-point headline blared, Kabul Falls to Taliban. Again. Here we are again. Rumsfeld was laid to rest. A teary Cheney mourned his friend. Congress squawked about the price tag of the infrastructure bill, protesting the cost, $3.5 trillion. The bill on Afghanistan came to more than half that over twenty years, $2 trillion.

This week marks five years that we have been living outside of the US, in the relative comfort and calm of Italy, EU founding member and G7 economy. The pandemic was tough at the start here, but in general, things are under control here. Even on sweltering days in Florence people weren’t complaining about wearing a mask. Afghanistan is making the news here in a wallpaper sort of way. It’s covered, but it’s not urgent.

All this to say, as I review my personal timeline with specific events and decision points of US foreign policy, and I see the US from here, I am struck the many ways in which my country might have seen to its own house first. Four More Wars, said the bumper stickers. I re-read 1984 after the 2016 election. I was struck by the satirical Ministry of Peace and the constant wars televised into citizen’s homes to keep them fearful of an unknown and distant yet treacherous enemy who threatens their very way of life.

I’m older now, a mom with kids, and I wonder how much the US would benefit – and benefit the greater world – by taking care of things at home first. Universal healthcare. Childcare. Parental leave. Retirement. Vacation that Americans actually take. Student loan debt cancellation. I find myself wondering how much healthier our foreign policy would be for everyone involved if we were taking care of our own people at home first, helping to reduce American inequity and inequality, anxiety and anger, that all get channeled back out into the world in the form of public policy and decisions. We spent $2 trillion over two decades in Afghanistan, and for what? Back to square one, as the UK and Russia knew well before we did. Plenty more blood to spill before August 31, and it will.

If you throw tons of money at a perceived problem, you can prop up your version of the solution for as long as the budget – and public goodwill – last. I really hope we learn our lessons from this, and change strategic tack. But I’m a realist about that. My heart aches for all of this, but especially for the Afghan people and for everyone who worked to help them.