The clock just inched past three A.M. I lay awake not out of desire, but due to jet lag. For the past three months, my body interpreted this time as about 7 in the evening, whether I was in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, or Ho Chi Minh City. Because of that repetition, day after day, this exact moment in the cycle of the earth rotating about its axis, I interpreted the moment, consciously and unconsciously as the evening. The past several nights I have attempted to change, to readjust to this time zone by forcing myself to go to sleep at the appropriate times. The past several nights I have found myself wide awake in the middle of the night here in Los Angeles. It is remarkable how habits form without notice over time. It is vexing how difficult they are to shake. For my sleep cycle, it took a dramatic event, flying across the world and seventeen time zones to shock my senses, to make me aware of the changes that had subtly taken place. America lays wide awake with me, wondering how it came to this. I know why I am awake, and I know why America can’t sleep.
Habits are repetitious thoughts. Habits are repetitious actions. Habits are formed out of intentions, which find their birth in desires. Some habits are considered instinctual, so engrained in the human (and animal) species that they are known at birth. Breathing, eating, avoiding pain. Many more habits are learned, socially co-created and perpetuated by ourselves and others in our environment. Language, customs, the totality of the details of our lives we call culture. Each day the majority of us wake without having to think about taking a breath to breathe, without having to think much about finding food, and without having to do much to avoid pain. These habits have been performed by our ancestors for the eons, evolving through natural selection to enable survival. These habits are formed out of the instinctual intention of self-preservation, from the desire to survive. They are so intertwined within us that they are us, part of our actual genetic fabric, near impossible to change. Those other habits, the amalgam of complexities we call culture, those are a different breed of habits. They are no less intertwined in our daily lives than breathing, eating, surviving; however, they are directly within our control, we choose them consciously or unconsciously. So what do our cultural habits tell us about our intentions? What do they tell us about what we value?
I think it is important to start with a distinguishing factor between cultures observed from a macro level, immediately noticed if the lens is zoomed all the way out. As Americans, we intend to be unique, we value the individual. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is symbolized in the language, encoded in the laws, and manifested in the day to day activities of the people of this country. We are not a nation collaborating to work towards common goals, but a nation of individuals working independently towards personal goals. We revere individuality and the freedom presupposed to be given to the individual. We view ourselves as distinctive, separate from the next person, as well as unhinged from our environment. This is all clearly valued. When habitual thought and action manifests out of an intention to be different, a desire to be different, what kind of culture is formed? What do the habits of a culture that values this look like? What do the habits sound like? What are the consequences of this?
It is no secret that America prides itself on being the wealthiest of nations. We value the acquisition, retention, and display of money and what it can buy us. Our habits reflect this. Our day to day is filled with the acquisition of material wealth and consumption of goods/services that said wealth can get for us. No doubt a human trait to acquire more wealth for self-preservation, but nowhere else in the world is there such a dramatic disconnect from that which we spend entire lifetimes attempting to acquire from why we desire it in the first place. Why do we desire material wealth? What do the habits of a culture that values this look like? What do the habits sound like? What are the consequences of this?
How often do you meet someone whom is content? Try to recall the last time you did. List all of the people you know that you would consider content. Do the same with ambitious. Or dissatisfied. I reckon the latter two are much easier lists to form and much longer. In America, we value exceptionalism. Average, okay, satisfactory, content. These are all pejorative terms in American culture. It all stems from a desire for more. Lost in a perpetual pursuit for more, for the exceptional is acceptance. What do the habits of a culture that values this look like? What do the habits sound like? What are the consequences of this?
I imagine a culture driven by individualism in the pursuit of material wealth with a reverence for the exceptional to look a lot like America today. We are a nation of people who exhaust our only true precious resource, the time on this earth, to chase one we created to distinguish symbolic, not real, value. And it is in that chase for something unreal that we have decided to determine something not acquired, but created: our own worth. It is a nation of people who search for something, an elusive thing called “happiness”, they can only find by stopping the search and seeing it is right in front of them, granted through the relinquishing of desire and the grace of acceptance. It is a nation of people who are so disconnected from one another that in an attempt to understand its own problems, they see it as the problem of one individual. It is a nation of people that requires a dramatic event to awaken it to the habits we have been quietly forming thought by thought, action by action.
My thoughts, compassion, love, my humanity goes out to those who suffered and will continue to suffer: the children (especially the children), the adults, Ryan, the families. To you. To me. How do I change? How do we change?