As I get older, I tend to think less and less in dualistic categories like good and bad, but on a spectrum from bad to good. I don't think as much in black and white, but in grey, embracing the complexity and paradox of life. I have also recently been thinking in terms of the movements of life as cycles. Sometimes I get this cascading effect of a vicious cycle wherein one bad thing contributes to another and another and things get worse and worse. Other times in my life, I feel like I am in a virtuous cycle wherein one good thing just leads to another and another. I feel so grateful that in the present moment, I am in a virtuous cycle.
Leaving North America put me in this virtuous cycle. I am not saying it is entirely because I left North America that I am in this positive space, but as I see personal, political, social, health, economic and many other relations falling apart into sociopathic chaos among family and friends living in North America, I have to wonder if where one lives can either make you happy and healthy or sad, depressed, unhealthy, and pathologically anxious and stressed?
I have studied sociology long enough to be aware of the effects of institutions on individuals. Take, for example, something that always surprises my students, that mental health disorders differ greatly by nation. Depression and anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, autism, eating disorders and others are much more rampant in highly industrialized countries, and the United States has the most mental health disorders on the planet. 1 out of 6 takes a mental health prescription. 7 out of 10 take some daily pharmaceutical! 20% of Americans take at least 5 drugs daily!
The moment Patrick and I made the decision to leave North America, we were facing some pretty serious personal and interpersonal challenges. Having a new baby and a toddler, taking on new jobs, writing a dissertation, struggling with communication with family members, feeling isolated, misunderstood, and hurt, we were struggling with all sorts of stress-related physical illness. All of that, and to add in the complete and utter chaos of moving a family with two small children across the world with very little sympathy or help. It was the hardest time in my life, but the best decision I have ever made.
The moment we made that choice the vicious cycle started to turn virtuous. Patrick was offered an online job at a prestigious university, we found a place to stay, there was some local discussion about hiring us as English teachers in Uruguay (didn't end up happening). Once we arrived, I could feel the trauma start to dissipate, but it happened very slowly. We were still struggling with the trauma and the difficulty of living in this entirely new place, but as we began to let life unfold (and take daily walks on the beach), we made new friends almost immediately. These friends stopped in for a quick chat and some mate a couple of times weekly, and we began to connect with them. This is something that was unimaginable for us in the U.S. Isa started school and easily made friends there. She began to get all sorts of invites to birthday parties and we met more parents and they embraced us fully. They were interested in us as immigrants, but did not exoticize us.
I made the decision to work through some of the trauma from my life in North America and address it in order to move past it. That was the hardest thing I have ever done (because of my intense fear of confrontation), but I am so glad I did it because there is no way I would have been able to let go of my resentment unless I came clean about it and addressed it. This added to the virtuous cycle. All of a sudden I felt more confident in my ability to handle difficult psychological and social interpersonal problems, something I was terrified of before. I stood my ground and owned up to my hurt feelings, and I also learned a lot about other people's thoughts and expectations of me that I would never have learned unless I brought the issue up. And the virtuous cycle continues!
Then, having moved past all of this trauma, I was able to put myself in a mental space to complete my dissertation. In about 3 months I wrote almost an entire book. My creative energy was unleashed when my mind is not taken up by resentment or stress or anxiety! Then, my parenting started to improve. I could see my girls and just be present with them. Giving them my attention when they most need it is the best gift any parent can give their children. And I noticed a difference in the quality of attention I could give. Not a simple smile while I thought of something else or multitasked on my phone, but truly paying attention. Helping Isa build a crown out of cardboard or pushing Vivian on the swing and biting her toes as they reach my face each time, making her giggle endlessly.
Organizing our lives so that we are free from the daily trauma of life in North America, I began to explore other means of self-improvement. I found a diet that has made me not only lose weight, but I feel satiated and stronger and have more mental clarity and less pain. I started looking into different ways to wire my brain to be happier and more present, and I am practicing these new activities daily, and I see a huge difference. I am more present. I am able to enjoy life more. I feel less anxiety about unknown things or difficult things, but see them as something I can handle confidently.
When more issues arise with my family, I am not stressed or considering them anxiously. I do not let them roll around in my head, keeping me up at night. Instead, I notice them from a distance. I view them as a result of a sick society (on various medications). But I am also attempting to move past only this simple, dualistic judgment and see these people's feelings with empathy. I know they are victims themselves. I know they hurt from all sorts of traumas that have happened to them. I see their humanity. And, for most of them, that humanity makes me want to do the work of continuing a relationship. So, I attempt to reach out with my own vulnerability and humanity (instead of with lies or political machinations or gossip or judgments). I have become closer with several family members than I have in years, and for that I am so grateful. And the virtuous cycle continues.
The best part of all of this virtuous cycle we are experiencing is improved social relations, both here in Uruguay and with the people in North America that are worth our time and attention. Seeing others with empathy and letting go of resentment has allowed us to experience a new level of closeness with people in North America with whom we once felt alienated. We are building up our relationships slowly and carefully. Each contact a step in the direction of love.
Here in Uruguay social relations are even easier. We are invited to several social engagements weekly with other young families locally. And about monthly we get to see our expat friends. We have been lucky enough to fall into a social group of artists and artisans, yogis, authors, musicians, microbrewers. Overall our friends here are really lovely, interesting, creative people. And of course I feel anxiety about my (in)ability to speak Spanish and follow everything with our local friends. But each time I try I grow in skill and confidence. And our friends are incredibly helpful and kind in helping me to understand and to learn. The social gatherings are also really lovely and not stressful at all. The kids run around together, the parents all do their part to watch all the children, we share mate and check in with one another. Our kids are already old friends. And I feel we are growing into old friends with the adults too. The process is very organic, and as a sociologist I know the importance of social cohesion. New reports say loneliness is the leading cause of death in the U.S. So, as we build our little community, the virtuous cycle continues.
The social cohesion is something that is virtuous in our kids too. When Isa went for a short time for preschool in North America, she quickly learned that she was not allowed to touch anyone. Not other kids or the teacher. No touch (!!!!) at all. In Uruguay, she gives besitos to every child and teacher every morning when she arrives and every afternoon when she leaves. Touching well is something that is learned in school. She hugs and plays. She sits in the older kids' laps. They hold hands and skip. The older kids pick her up so she can reach. She is learning how to make friends. How to touch nicely. How to be a good community member. How to do her part.
The other day her school went to a retirement home and the kids sat and listened intently to an old woman tell stories about the local area. I am sure it was insanely boring. But they were taught how to respect this woman and her oral history. And the woman I am sure was happy to share. It is these little ways in which implicit lessons about respect, dignity and community seep into her little brain that make me so happy she's not in American classroom sitting still with her hands to herself (where she could one day be prescribed a drug forcing her to sit still). In Uruguay she runs in and out of the classroom as she likes. Until she's 6, she is free to spend her time at school as she wishes. Playing and creating and learning little lessons about how to be a good person. And Vivian has already embodied many of these lessons. When Uruguayans drink mate they drink one sip themselves and then offer it to everyone else. Vivian takes my mate and shares it around the room. She shares all of her food. She is already thinking of others in this very Uruguayan way.
As a result of all the goodness coming out of these virtuous cycles, things are going so well with my marriage. Patrick is exploring so much creatively. He is playing the guitar every day. He and Isa are writing songs together. He designed our house! He is reading so many books. He is transforming our property into a beautiful paradise. Cutting in some places, planting in others. We are both learning so much about all the ecological principles we came here to learn: like how to make food sustainably, how to be a good husband to both animals and the land, and how to handle waste, and how to preserve ecosystems in the process. We are learning together, and having fun, and can spend our days as we wish. We both have work to do for our jobs, but we can decide when to do it, and how to structure our days. What a gift!
I am so grateful to be in this period of virtuous cycles. I am not perfect. I still have moments of sadness or anxiety or frustration. I still feel lonely. I still get nervous about confrontation. I still question myself. I still eat crap sometimes. But, slowly, I am healing. I am growing into a better, healthier person. And I just hope I can keep the virtuous cycle moving in an upward direction, because I can't wait to see how good it can get, if it is already this great.