[This is a letter to Erin.]
I have never been to the US (somehow i seem to be unworthy of the high honour of stepping in this great country), but i imagine the culture gap that an american faces when he arrives in Latin America would be similar to the one existing between a big city and a rural zone inside the same Latin America, a gap i do know well.
This friend of mine tells me americans, despite living in a land of wealth, walk around unhappy, terribly bound to their unnecessary necessities, all the sorts of things they got used to even if in the long run it actually causes them to suffer and restricts their freedom.
So what happens is that South America can feel dull and soulless to South Americans too — and i would recommend anyone who thinks they’ve seen different to beware the tourist trap. There is meaning and richness in South America, but it is a personal achievement and quest, just as much as it is in North America, in Tibet or anywhere else (except Pasargada, of course).
There is no simple solution to the search for meaning. If any solution turns out to be simple it is invalid by definition. Meaning is not simple. If you simplify meaning you lose it.
I am always suspicious of easy answers, i maintain this suspicion as a policy. I usually try to avoid depicting any complex circumstance into a clear division between friend and foe. But i’ll make an exception here and admit we have one enemy. Or to be precise, even if meaning-in-life is an open-ended path, at the present historical moment i see a very common roadblock in this path. An “enemy” that is so pervasive we could just as well, for now, focus on overthrowing it as a form of searching for meaning.
And this roadblock is our cultural ethos of money.
This ethos is this thing that says that the real world is like it is, whether you want it or not, that people are selfish, that science knows it all and that, basically, either you run the rat race or you are powerless and meaningless. Money actually has very little to do with that, and the mechanics of money are usually completely ignored by most of the people who do profess those claims. But the argument proceeds to tell you that money drives the world — which actually is a very minor detail once you accept all the rest.
I would say that maybe this ethos is right. Who am i to know? I certainly do not claim to be able to understand society as a whole, or even human nature. What i do know is that my idols pretty much swam against this current. Nietzsche died crazy and unshaven. Zack de la Rocha achieved commercial success and seemingly took it for the worst that could happen to his band.
And besides there are those cases of very successful men and women who have loads of cash but no happiness — i don’t know whether statistically those cases are meaningful, but even then the cases are frequent enough to show that cash is no guarantee of happiness, even if it may ease the path to it.
Also, winning the rat-race game is easy enough — when i was 14 i had the answer to it. I got it from Hesse’s Sidartha and it is as follows: “i can think, i can wait, i can fast”. If you can memorize those 9 words you can master the whole money thing. At first i thought it was a somewhat mysterious message, i had just opened the book and read the passage at random, but then years latter i got around to reading the whole book and it is extremely straightforward, it even over explains the whole thing.
So, where does that leave us?
I think our so-called “modern society” has tried to turn the tables on boredom, and in the attempt actually made things worse.
So freedom was always a big, deep, personal challenge. It remains so. If you want to be free, it is going to hurt today as much as it always have. But now this silly ideology tells everyone that if you are a “winner” you will be completely and perfectly happy. Modern society tried to say: “dreams are possible” but it turned out to say: “money is good”.
The problem with our present civilization is not that imprisons people, but that it makes very dubious promises — promises about freedom, happiness and life.
A very striking example. Brazilian culture is supposed to be strongly chauvinistic, to relegate women to very secondary roles in the life of society. Well, it is indeed. And i am deeply passionately committed to the idea that women are as important and potentially as bright and powerful as men.
Then again, when i was in Recife, it seemed much easier for girls to take the initiative. They would come and ask me out, something that in Brasília or Curitiba or São Paulo, supposedly “more modern” places, simply does not happen. In those “modern places” she will just parade in front of you in this “femme fatale” pose, and wait for you to “play the men”. Even if after that they will spend hours complaining about how rude and brash and empty manly flirts are.
What does that mean? That women in Recife are more liberated than women in São Paulo? I find this very hard to believe. Is it carnaval then? It also does not seem to explain things.
What i make of this is: the “traditional” society recipe-for-living, while definitively being paternalistic, effectively presents both women and men with a context, an environment, where each player can deal with their own issues. Women have a role they are expected to follow, but inside that role they have power. On the other hand, the “modern” society orders people to be free but, when those people ask “How?” they get no answer. The breaking of the shackles instead of a pathway to freedom becomes an enslavement in itself, for it takes away the tools of such freedom.
This in turn becomes an idolizing of money. But this does not happen because the other “higher” ideals have faded and money remained. In fact, money has been chosen and enforced as an ideal. Why it is so, and how exactly that came to be, i don’t know. Market talk has been all too eager to escalate its own importance for sure, but i doubt it could do it by itself — just like no amount of advertisement will convince you that bacon-flavoured candy tastes good.
This idolizing of money in turn gives rise to such fool errands as the fight against freeloaders (reflected for example in the dumb US border policy — a policy that hurts the US, a country that has always flourished because of the foreigners and not the other way around!). And pretty soon foolishness turns to insult, and insult turns into injury.
And then what? We can’t pretend we are not modern, but we also can’t pretend that we are not flawed at it either.
Any attempt to rescue a kind of «cultural purity» or «wholesomeness» that “traditional” society had will necessarily fail to grab the amount of agreement required for it to work as the framework that “traditional” society was. But just not giving a damn and living the traveller life won’t fix anything either. And if just spreading the idea was enough — we had “Waking Life” and “Fight Club” was even a blockbuster of sorts — if it was enough we would be all right already.
We are humans. It is because of our caring and our society instinct that we conquered the freedom we posses. Yes, i agree: we must believe in change. The way things are is not good enough. But… we must not be naïve about it either!
So: let’s not save anyone. Let’s stop convincing the spark-in-the-eyes-lacking people that they lack anything. Let’s not convince ourselves that they should travel. Let’s not preach. Let’s not rebel.
I suspect, in fact, that not trying to save their souls is a form of antidote to the soullessness of this civilization thing: Because maybe the problem is that we tried to make freedom too easy, by lifting barriers instead of sharpening tools. I believe that change is welcome, and i believe there are ample new horizons beyond which we could go — culturally speaking, philosophically speaking. I believe life can be more. But i am not trying to convince anyone. And i do not mean to make it easy.
There are some things that are not meant to be easy.