It’s a beautiful day in Mexico City, temperate and comfortable, and though the smog conceals the mountains the map says surround us, the air is thin and dry: you can chalk that up to the altitude. We’ve spent our time so far recovering from the stress of travel and all the little shocks of cultural relocation, but, unlike on our past trips, we’re also facing the necessity of defining the terms of a new way of living. We talk about this on the walks we take through the streets of Coyoacán. We explore how we want to define success now that we no longer measure our days in dollars earned or tasks accomplished. It’s surprisingly difficult, and once we dug into it, we found something rather sinister: the culture we were raised in prepares people to measure success primarily through their productivity.
Now, being productive is undeniably important. We must all do the work necessary to ensure our own comfort, security, and survival, but what happens once we’ve done that work? The two of us worked hard for years in advance to clear this time and space to ask these kinds of questions, so: What really matters when your needs are met? Mexico City seems like a strange place to be asking this question – a tremendous number of people here don’t have the time and space for anything but working to meet their barest needs – but in another way, it’s ideal. The culture here, though it remains somewhat opaque to our newly arrived eyes, can already help us understand the culture we came from.
There’s a fundamental question to be answered by every culture, and every culture has a different answer based on their circumstances. The question? Why. Yes, that’s the Big One, the question people debate ad infinitum in churches and barrooms alike. Why do we wake up every day and do the things we do? In Mexico City, a huge chunk of people wake up and go to work so they can eat. In America, it can appear much the same, but on closer inspection, a large number of Americans go to work for more than just food and shelter: they work for status, luxury, and comfort. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing this intentionally (whether people are working intentionally is another question), but as we’ve begun to detach ourselves from a culture of blind productivity, we’re finding that having all that work to do mattered more to us than we thought.
As Americans, our identities are tied up with our productivity. Our culture has taught us to define ourselves not through the level of our happiness, but through our ability to increase that happiness (we have even historically defined happiness as something which is pursued but not necessarily attained). American culture is a culture of more and of better, and that is made possible because American culture exists in an environment of relative plenty. Of course, most places in the world don’t have plenty, they’d be thrilled to have just enough. Where do our lives on the road figure in? We saved as much as we could, but it’s certainly not plenty. With any luck, it will be just enough to last us until we can determine what we need to do to keep going.
What do we need to keep going? If we’re no longer interested in pulling more from the well of plenty to fuel a never ending pursuit of happiness, how do we determine our pursuits? We have no cultural training for this. There are no external benchmarks to compare ourselves against any more, nobody to accept our efforts as good enough. We are now the only people with the authority to decide if we are doing enough, if we are really happy. The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of people in the world cannot choose to pursue happiness; it is an occasional side effect of the necessary work of survival. Our home culture, American culture, is concentrated less on survival than most: in its short life it has almost always had at least the illusion of plenty to push people to equate increased productivity with success: if there is always more, all you have to do to get it is keep working. But there is not always plenty, there does not always need to be more. Life is not about getting more, it’s about being happy with enough.
The two of us are just beginning the hard work of defining enough for ourselves. Once we know what enough is, we can start to figure out when we are succeeding and when we are not. Though it’s hard to reprogram a lifetime of subconscious cultural practice, we’re trying to teach ourselves that a month without a paycheck is not wasted if we had food and shelter and filled our time reading, writing, exploring, and doing other things we find fulfilling. We may go weeks without producing anything of “value” beyond memories, and yes, this way of living is absolutely a rare and privileged luxury. So what more could we ask for? More than this room we are staying in? More than the rice and beans we eat? More than a new city to explore and new culture to learn about? More than the time we have to ask ourselves these questions? From here, looking out of this window, facing the Mexico City breeze, all that certainly seems like enough. All that certainly makes us happy.
Postscript: If we aren’t always trying for more, if we aren’t always working in pursuit of happiness, if we are lucky and we actually have enough, what next? Do we sit back and enjoy the privilege? No. We use that space we’ve gained to work to make sure others have enough. We work to make sure that our good fortune is not such an aberration. That’s phase two for us. We’re just getting started.