This Time, We'll Look at the Fall
July 29, 2012 9:21 PM   Subscribe

Where do I get away from it all, when "it" is consumerism, militarism, and my general sense of first-world-problems ennui?

23 year old male, living in the US, still dealing with the existential angst I asked you about 10 months or so ago, along with my fair share of anxiety and depression. As part of digging a little deeper into where my feelings come from, I'm starting to realize that it's not just that I'm morally or ethically against lots of elements of mainstream US or western culture, they really bum me out. I've lived in a bunch of different places around the country, in big cities and small, and I find it very hard to leave the house without feeling surrounded by advertising and its effects or constant reminders of the privileges and luxuries afforded by being reasonably well off and coming from privilege.

My solution to this problem, in the past, has been finding romantic and personal relationships I see as antidotes to the culture - obviously, this approach has its limitations and, at the very least, my friends and I both seem to believe that finding someone in my age range ready to take on the antidote-type role is a big long shot. So, a new thought: I have a graduate student's schedule and, if I start saving now, I could probably afford an extended vacation next summer just about anywhere: say two weeks in the most expensive parts of western Europe and more someplace cheaper. If I want to use the time and the money to test the idea that a change of venue might make me feel less anxious about the sorry state of the world around me, where might I go? Does such a place actually exist? Anecdotal evidence and real data are both appreciated.

One important note: There's lots on volunteering in the last thread, and I'm definitely going to be spending some time doing what I can over the next year. I don't think, however, that it's emotionally or practically to my benefit to go on Peace Corps style service trips: I'm both too mentally unhealthy to take something like that on at present, and don't think it gets at the core of the question here, which is whether and how I can live in a place that gives me the mental space necessary to really consider the things I like to do and the people I like to spend time with. Having read (part of) and been irritated by "Eat Pray Love," I'm also a bit wary of the spiritual tourism style approach.
posted by Apropos of Something to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What do you like to do? What are you interested in? What are you hoping to experience exactly? You do recognize the irony in saying you want to escape consumerism yet welcoming the possibility of spending money to go to expensive western European countries, correct? That being said, I'm not sure I understand what you're looking for. You said you've already lived in many different places; what do you hope to find in another place? I don't think aimlessly wondering around is going to help much with your ennui problem. I think you should reconsider some of the volunteering ideas. You don't need to commit to something as substantial as Peace Corps to do something worthwhile. You can't escape your privilege, but you can use it to do something that contributes to others the lives of others with less privilege.

So perhaps think about what skills you have. Language skills? Go to that country and volunteer with a women's cooperative project. Design skills? Go offer your skills for free for an underfunded non-profit that supports a cause you believe in. Are you handy? Take a few weeks and build a Habitat house in whatever location appeals to you. etc, etc The only way to combat consumerism is to give instead of take.
posted by greta simone at 9:35 PM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have you considered getting away from people entirely, or sustaining your own survival (with a reasonable safety net)?

Helping others is good, but it can't make you one of them. Instead of giving or taking, learn to make.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:47 PM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you aren't mentally healthy enough to do volunteer work, then how are you mentally healthy enough to travel? I don't see volunteer work as more mentally taxing than organizing and going on a solo vacation, although as a disclaimer I have not suffered from anxiety or depression so perhaps I just don't understand.

I do not think that expensive parts of Western Europe are the way to assuage your consumerism angst (and the fact that you're even imagining that as something that would be helpful paints your judgment in a dubious light for me). It sounds like you're thinking all you want is to see some different sights, eat some different food, hear people speaking a different language, as part of your anxiety reduction plan. It doesn't sound likely to be useful for you to me.

What I think when I read this question and your other one is that you might respond better to something quite different - specifically, the culture shock of going to a place where everyone has nothing (or very little), and seeing how happy they are in that situation.

If you can't handle the concept of volunteering, then don't go as a volunteer, but don't go as a tourist either - you need to put yourself specifically in a position where you can spend time with people living in a completely different world (a different universe, commercially and emotionally speaking) and see how they live. As you noted in the other thread, volunteers often take away as much or more value from the experience as they make, but that doesn't make volunteering wrong: it's a win-win equation, the people you work with will be happy to share their lives with you. Play with children who don't even own a full outfit of clothing, but who are still just as joyful as the children on the playground at home. See how a person with a CD4 count of 10 can smile and laugh harder than you can, despite having full blown AIDS. I could go on and on but writing it down doesn't convey it nearly adequately. You need to experience it yourself to understand.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:14 PM on July 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

And by the way, you can probably find situations close to what I described in your own backyard, if you are worried about your mental state for travel to a developing country. But if you think you could handle it, a developing country experience could be exponentially more life-changing.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:17 PM on July 29, 2012

Rent a cabin in one of the fifty least densely populated counties in the US. It doesn't have to be spiritual tourism--plenty of people just like to be places where it's hard to see anyone else. But then again, there's nothing wrong with getting out there and overdosing on Thoreau, Annie Dillard, William Least-Heat Moon, Barry Lopez, and other nature/eco-/off-the-beaten-path writers for a while.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:24 PM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Western Europe is highly consumerist. You're not going to find what you're looking for there. It sounds like you need somewhere more focused on nature - where that is (beach, desert, snow, forest, etc) is up to you.
posted by heyjude at 10:28 PM on July 29, 2012

The Camino de Santiago, maybe?

Then again, I agree with others that it's somewhat hypocritical to take a vacation in the name of ridding yourself of "first world problems".

You say you have a grad student's schedule. Are you a student? Have you ever had to work for a living? Like literally, 100% of your material support comes from dollars that you, yourself, earn directly with your labor? A lot of the ennui and existential stuff faded for me when I had to Get A Job, in the most pedestrian sense.
posted by Sara C. at 10:33 PM on July 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

I'm you.

Memail if you want to know more about when I entirely had to break away from what you complain of - because you are correct - that shit sucks!

Interestingly, I live in LA. The hub of all that is not quite right. I live in West Hollywood, though. Here is how I cope....

- I go into Nature. A LOT.

Nature grounds you. I have favorite trees. Favorite hills. Favorite lakes, ponds, streams, and the Pacific Ocean. I visit often. You do same.

- I ignore advertising (billboards) , except to note if something is designed well.

- I use my DVR and Netflix to avoid ALL commercials. I tape EVERYTHING broadcast I want to watch (like the Olympic Opening) and fast forward through the commercials. HULU make me watch commercials, as does some On Demand programming - so Fuck That.

- I am and was involved in my local government.

I'm considered an "activist" in WeHo, but back in NYC, I served as the head of my neighborhood association and in government on my local Community Board.

Get involved, locally.


Also. Meditate.

It's OK to use a guided meditation. You can download something on Itunes!



I believe that everything is improving, and people (the masses) are getting hip to the multiple ways they are being taken advantage of - and I believe change is happening NOW.

I look constantly for signs that people are turning away from bullshit (like, how people are unhappy with the propaganda-like coverage of the Olympics that NBC is providing) and I say to myself, "See! I'm not the only one!"

- I do not watch propaganda - so no Olympics for me this year!

- Likewise, I try my hardest not to buy or give $$ to companies that I do not agree with (I'm looking at you Wall Street firms, and right now, Chick-Fil-A!)


I do what I can. I concentrate on promoting the positive.

I avoid (like the plague!) everything I do not agree with.

I stay educated so I know the difference between the two.
posted by jbenben at 10:36 PM on July 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

Oh man. If you take this girl's job that she is trying to get rid of, you won't have to save until next summer before you do this:

A lot of the ennui and existential stuff faded for me when I had to Get A Job, in the most pedestrian sense.

Cosigned, big time.
posted by cairdeas at 10:38 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you look back at 21 year-old you and think, "That guy was such an asshole". I did when I was 23. I think I was 28 when I looked back at two-years-ago-me and first thought, "That guy wasn't so bad". Just keep on trying to not be an asshole until you get there. 'What would not-an-asshole do here?' is a serious question that I often ask myself. These are just some thoughts that may or may not be related to your situation.
posted by Kwine at 10:51 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sara C.: "Have you ever had to work for a living? Like literally, 100% of your material support comes from dollars that you, yourself, earn directly with your labor?"

Yes. I didn't go straight into grad school from undergrad and, FWIW, work now for the college as part of my grad school plan. By no means is my job as hard as a coal miner's but, as Sunburnt said so aptly upthread, I'm under no illusions I'm going to become less privileged by pretending I don't have the ability to opt in and out of real labor at will.

The Western Europe thing is becoming a distraction, I put it in the original post only because it was the most expensive place I could think to travel and I wanted to provide a financial benchmark. Trust me, I've turned down plenty of justifications and offers to do the Eurail pass around Europe thing, and it's not what I'm looking for. Still, I don't imagine that I know everything there is to know about every nuanced corner of the world, so I wanted to leave the door open.

Let me try to narrow the question: The purpose of this trip, should it happen at all, would be to test the premise that part of my angst may well be due to being surrounded by a particular kind of culture for which there are alternatives I could pursue by myself. I'm asking for the best place or places to test that premise. "Nowhere" is a perfectly acceptable answer. So is any point X on the globe. The nature answers are definitely a step in the right direction, though I'd like if possible to hear about places where there are other people living out these sorts of values, near nature or not.
posted by Apropos of Something at 11:09 PM on July 29, 2012

Response by poster: treehorn+bunny: "What I think when I read this question and your other one is that you might respond better to something quite different - specifically, the culture shock of going to a place where everyone has nothing (or very little), and seeing how happy they are in that situation."

I'll grant that this is totally a reflection of my screwed up head, and not actual conditions in reality but ... when I try this, I'm rarely able to see that happiness beyond my own (my culture's) presumed complicity in the painful parts. Either that, or I'm lead to question what I'm doing there "helping" in the first place. The anecdotal stories of well-meaning westerners going to El Salvador during the 80s and being told by Salvadorans to go home and stop Reagan? That's the voice I end up hearing in my head.

And ... maybe I shouldn't stop hearing that voice. Maybe part of this requires recognizing one's complicity. But I'm reading notes in that previous thread about not making myself a martyr, and I'm reacting to the well-wishes of friends and family, all of whom would like me to feel a little better day to day, and I'm trying to feel out some potential role models.
posted by Apropos of Something at 11:15 PM on July 29, 2012

I have similar feelings. I did a few things that were helpful to me, sort of by accident really but they've really been important parts of my life

1. I moved to Eastern Europe for a year to a place [Transylvania] where I was a distinct minority and where the things I took for granted were desired luxuries. I didn't do this on purpose (my husband had gotten a job, I followed along) but while I was there I found a way to be useful and the thing I started doing--teaching computer skills to people who were less fortunate than me--turned out to be a big thing I did with the rest of my life afterwards. I lived in a place where most people bought fresh food at farmer's markets every day not because they were foodies but because that's how you got food. Supermarkets were a rare and wondrous (and expensive) thing and everyone was a little more reverential about having access to them. I was constantly asked why I didn't smoke Marlboros as opposed to the crappy local cigarettes or use Colgate as opposed to the local toothpaste [called, adorably, Rodent]. When I came back I had a new perspective on American excess that helped position it somewhat better. I also got a feeling for what it's like being someplace with a much less cool government and were xenophobia and institutionalized racism were an even bigger deal than they are here which helped me get some perspective.

2. I moved to a state (Vermont) where billboards are illegal and I didn't despise my elected officials. Most of my friends don't have smart phones or televisions. I have a smart phone. I also sometimes watch television but when I do it's a big social activity that a lot of us do together and I feel a lot less pandered to by advertising because they're showing me a lifestyle that I've mostly opted out of. I'm also twenty years older than you and I've found my niche in a way that makes me comfortable. In addition to my MeFi job (one of those great "you don't have to fuck people over to survive" jobs, thank you Matt), I teach computer stuff to local people who have, in many cases, never used the internet before. So in many ways we have a level of privilege as Americans that is a problem at a global scale, but in other ways we have our own local problems that are still pretty problematic and in some ways (though not all certainly) even MORE of a problem because of their invisibility. I live in a small apartment on the edge of the woods and I go for long walks a lot of the time and leave my phone at home. I know my neighbors and am part of a community that values community even as I personally am a more affluent and overeducated member of it. Other people have other skills and we all work together to make our community good.

Academia can be hard in some ways because it's narrow-focused and there's a pretty hard-coded pecking order and the money thing is confusing and strange. You may wind up feeling better about things just as a result of getting out of grad school and finding your path whether it's anti-poverty work here or abroad or just in a community that has meaning to you. For me I decided that I wasn't going to find that perfect place where I could do my good works in a location free of governmental and/or social coercion but I could work for justice in a place where people's values mirrored mine to some extent. And part of this was deciding what things mattered and what things didn't (many of my neighbors are religious, I am not, I've decided to not have this be A Thing even though it's more of a thing in my personal philosophy it's lower on the list of Things I Care About right now) and feeling comfortable enough with my choices that I could opt to focus on what mattered to me.

Dorothy Day, the woman who started the Catholic Worker movement, has an autobiography called The Long Loneliness where she talks about how hard it was to care deeply about certain things (for her it was religion but you can use it as a parable) and to care more about them, possibly, than you care about yourself or the things that you are supposed to care about. She felt that she was a servant of the poor and dedicated her life to that goal claiming that the trick to getting something that you wanted to come to you was to give the things you had away. It sounds a little woo woo and I am very much not a Catholic, but her spiritual quest resonated with me and it might be something you find useful. I wish you the best.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 PM on July 29, 2012 [23 favorites]

Going into politics is a good way to beat the rat race because you suddenly have the budget and power to deal with these issues (if you work constructively and in partnership, natch).
posted by parmanparman at 12:57 AM on July 30, 2012

Being in an unfamiliar country can help with this a bit, if only because everything is so goddamn unfamiliar. If you don't speak the language you won't notice the politics and advertising the same way.

Also, we in the US are definitely near the top of the pile as far as material/consumer culture goes. Most places -- including Western Europe -- are going to be less stuff-laden than we are.

But I don't know if a vacation is going to give you relief. When you're on vacation you tend to be around other affluent travelers, and you tend to wind up in tourist locations. Could you go to a country where you know somebody/can stay in the same town for a while/can sublet a room in someone's apartment?

Also, the problems you're seeing (existential, anti-consumer, the paradox of volunteering, etc) are real, but that doesn't...I mean, whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it, you know? It can seem like all your options suck because they all wind up in the same existential morass where the world is full of poverty and violence and then we die, but in a way that is also bullshit, and you have to keep stomping forward with all this discontent like a giant backpack of rocks and maybe you will always have this goddamn backpack but maybe you'll also get stronger backpack hauling muscles.

Alternatively: I moved overseas as an angst-ridden young person and left a few years later with a much lighter heart. There is all manner of fucked up shit where I was but it was different, NOT HOME, and so it gave me the space to unwind some of my own knots.

Some Euro- places i'd recommend for different kinds of sojourns: Lisbon, Valencia, the little islands off the Dalmatian coast, Sarajevo, Montenegro, Skopje, Marseilles, southern Albania, southeastern Italy. (Or you could live out my unfulfilled fantasies and go to Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.) I wish you good luck working on these questions.
posted by feets at 3:14 AM on July 30, 2012

I'd like to add an observation on Western Europe - specifically the Nordic countries - and the perspective it gave me on life in the United States (10 years spread out across Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco).

It was a 3 week visit to my best friend in rural Yorkshire in the Spring of 2007 that brought home to me the existential cost of living in the United States. Even though by then I was living in SF, it was only when I went and immersed myself in her extremely eco-conscious sustainable lifestyle (her personal choice and decision) that I realized just how much harder it was to NOT waste and NOT consume in the US.

It was the way the systems had been designed for consumption and waste and one had to jump barriers and hurdles and pay premiums simply in order to contain one's own footprint whereas in a rural UK village, the system was designed in order to support conservation.

That led me to take the decision to leave the United States, eventually moving to live in Finland. Now that was another eye opener, where sustainability and systems design went hand in hand on an entirely different platform than even what I'd seen in the UK.

Newly emerging economies may go through a disproportionate period of consumerism as though they are making up for years of lack - the ridiculous lengths seen in Mumbai and Shanghai are case in point.

But what you describe is a systems problem and finding a way - exchange student? - to move to a location where the systems are designed to conserve and not waste, where resources are scarce (Arctic circle anyone) and where respect and love for nature and wildlife are an integral part of the national identity - will help give you a perspective on how you will choose to live outside of mainstream consumer culture, this time from the outside.
posted by infini at 3:28 AM on July 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I would specifically recommend against going somewhere full of poor and diseased people to watch how joyous and happy they are as recommended up thread. That is exploitative and, I suspect, will only make you feel more full of ennui and angst over our cultural situation and how powerless we are to change things, how the US's policies are related to poverty in the developing world and so on. Plus, of course, places full of impoverished people are not guaranteed to also be full of happy people and it's a pretty shitty Western stereotype that expects the global poor to teach the global rich how to love the simple things in life.

My favorite vacation of recharging alone and getting out of dangerous thought patterns was went I went to Death Valley and the Mojave Desert and hiked and went to national park centers. I also loved being alone in coastal Northern California where I could watch waves and elephant seals and read and think without many demands on my time. Maybe try to find a cabin in a quieter national park - I think Assoteague Island has rentals, for example, or Joshua Tree.

I also like the idea of going to a Scandinavian country and experiencing a culture with a lot of similarities, but a very different set of priorities from the US.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:07 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

My path has been a bit different than Jessamyn's, but there's also a lot in common. Living somewhere very, very different will let you look at the US with new eyes when you come back -- there are a lot of faults with this society, but there is a lot of good, too, and I can see that good much more clearly having been elsewhere. So I'd strongly suggest the travel, even a short trip, as long as it is somewhere you are a fish totally out of water, the more different the better.

And then long-term, there's a lot of value in what Jessamyn calls a "you don't have to fuck people over to survive" job. I have one of those, too -- I'm not changing the world, but I don't have to be embarrassed by or ambivalent about what I do, and I know that every day I spend at work is making one small set of things slightly better.

Again like Jessamyn describes, there are a lot of ways to live your day to day life over the long-term that don't need to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Everyone opts into and out of various parts of our culture, and you are free to pick and choose within limits. Even if you moved to the furthest corner of the world, you are going to have to make those choices, and you may as well make them consciously and full-heartedly.

Lastly, most of the people I know who are out on your end of the spectrum in terms of thinking about consumerism and so on tend to spend as much of their time as possible in the national parks and forests. For a lot of people, that kind of intense and frequent contact with the natural world is an effective self-therapy for how they feel. And if you are looking for fellow-travelers, as it were, you are probably going to find them in backpackers, climbers, long-distance bicyclists, rafters, etc.
posted by Forktine at 5:28 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

still dealing with the existential angst I asked you about 10 months or so ago, along with my fair share of anxiety and depression

You will never find the the right place or the right experience that changes your outlook for you, or changes your ability to respond in a healthy way to the reality of the world around you. Just like, as you say, you will never find a person or a relationship that solves your problems for you.

The only way to make a lasting change in your life is to deal head-on with the things that are troubling you. Anxiety and depression may respond temporarily to a change in venue, but not permanently, and then you're not just back where you were before, you're discouraged because you feel the time and effort you put into the experience is wasted.

I'm asking for the best place or places to test that premise. "Nowhere" is a perfectly acceptable answer.

The answer isn't "nowhere." The answer is inside your own head. If you have a flexible schedule and enough money to save for an expensive European vacation, then you have the resources to seek help for your anxiety and depression.
posted by headnsouth at 5:58 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was going to say Cambodia or South-East Asia but actually I think that is more depressing as it really enforces the impression of how the imperialism of The West has screwed them so completely.

Instead i'm going to say how about a small town in Iceland. Its a beautiful and weird country and mostly just smalltowns and huge expanses of strange wilderness. And definitely not as consumerist as the USA.
posted by mary8nne at 6:14 AM on July 30, 2012

Dorothy, what you seek isn't over the rainbow but in your own back yard.

You've identified a lot of things that are of concern to you - consumerism, militarism, etc. - and yet your question seems to be about how to escape these things rather than work against them. I get that you're overwhelmed by them (having been there myself). But the only real answer to "How do I cope with the evils of the world?" is: you fight against the evils of the world.

Disengagement isn't the answer. It is lazy. It is also probably morally reprehensible. It is also not going to make you feel better, because (as noted above) it is only a matter of time before the evils of the world come and find you. But also, practically, there is no real escape. You can put on blinders - literal or metaphorical - but something will always sneak in.

If you aren't well enough to fight against the evils of the world, then you have three options:

1) Get well. Make that your job. I get the sense that you really believe that your depression/anxiety/existential angst are caused by your observations of these terrible things in the world. You're wrong. That type of crippling, debilitating condition is medical in origin and requires legitimate medical treatment.

2) Accept that you aren't well enough to contribute to undoing these things. We aren't all built to be fighters, lining up on the front lines to protect from pillaging invaders. Likewise, we aren't all capable of contributing to the efforts to stem the tide of the military-industrial complex. Perhaps your intended role is to support someone who is doing those things. Perhaps your intended role is to provide the positive feedback that those people need in order to keep fighting the good fight. And you know what? Whatever you're capable of doing? That's just great.

3) Some combination of the above. Maybe you aren't well enough... NOW. Maybe you will be well enough someday. If you don't work to get better, you'll never know. But in order to get better, you're going to need to give yourself the space to get there.

My money is on number three. Work to get better, while simultaneously giving yourself permission to not be well enough to go off and slay the dragon of militarily-imposed
posted by jph at 7:24 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was similar to you when I was 23. I'm now 51 and can say that while it's possible that your discomfort is common 20-something angst, it really could be a poor cultural fit, and that staying and "fighting" might not be the best answer for you. I left and am immensely happier.

Here's what helped me at first and might help you:

- I sold my TV. I didn't watch it online, either.
- I stopped going to violent movies.
- I got deeply involved in traditional music and dance from many cultures. This was extremely helpful. If you can find a non-intellectual, emotionally and spiritually satisfying way of being part of a group, you'll feel a million times better. If you have any interest in music, dance, team sports, or anything similar, build on it.
- I helped immigrants adjust to life in the US. This was informal, friend-of-a-friend volunteering, not something through an organization. Their stories and friendship showed me a different world, and having to explain my own culture to someone from a very different culture helped me see the differences clearly.
- I moved into the woods, kept warm with firewood that I cut myself, grew my own veggies, etc. etc. The connection with nature was great but I didn't like the isolation.
- I started my own business, which has a "save the world" aspect.
- I traveled a lot in the US and internationally, looking for a better cultural fit. Every trip clarified my perspective more.

All of the above helped, but not enough, so:

- I moved out of the US and into the "developing" world and am assimilating into the local culture. I now live in a much more caring, communal world where consumerism is easier to ignore because we're too busy dancing and talking late into the night. I also have the satisfaction of having a legal way to no longer pay for US military action, thanks to the foreign earned income exemption to US taxes. I was a case of "love it or leave it."

Obviously, I don't think a vacation alone will do it, but if you want to go somewhere to have your mindset challenged or clarified, I'd vote for a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which was a dizzying combination of Buddhism, commercialism, and indecipherable language that finally rid me of any desire to live in Europe or any other "developed" place. There's enough tourist infrastructure that you can stay in a comfortable, anxiety-free, English-speaking hotel, but just walk a few blocks and you're in a country where you can't even begin to guess what the signs say and where there's a peaceful Buddhist temple every few blocks.

I personally would avoid looking for a consumerism-free culture, because increasingly they don't exist. Look beyond the surface to how people interact with each other. Are they isolated beings who interact only on a superficial level, where every connection feels transactional? Or do they care about the group and make you feel like a member of something much bigger than yourself? If you like the latter, you might look to Asia and Latin America. I chose Latin America because Spanish was easy for me to learn.
posted by ceiba at 9:00 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have been through periods where I've felt like you. Things that helped:
* Switching to a career that helped make people better. I like feeling like I make every person I encounter a little bit better. That means I'm improving things one person at a time and one day at a time. I can manage that. That's my contribution.
* I identified things that I did that didn't go along with my values and I stopped doing them. No buying books, no buying CDs, no DVDs. I choose very carefully what I spend my money on, and that's travel and food.
* I try to consume consciously - if I have a choice between two things I try to pick the thing closest to how I believe I should live. Sometimes it doesn't matter.
* I try to avoid advertising and I try to avoid rewarding brands that advertise a lot.
* I try to take every opportunity to connect with my community. That sometimes means shopping at the local greengrocer, it sometimes means going to the local library, it sometimes means smiling at people in the park, it sometimes means receiving parcels for my neighbours. It always means stopping to help if someone looks lost.
* I try to appreciate the little sources of happiness - walking barefoot in my sunwarmed garden, growing my own herbs and salad, seeing a lovely sunrise, making someone smile when they only have a few days to live, making a truly lovely meal, buying and enjoying gorgeous perfectly ripe fruit.

Those are the ways I live with myself. I also read books like "Enough" by John Naish and "The Greatest Show on Earth" by Dawkins. Gives you a bit of perspective. In the grand scheme of things nothing matters. That's quite freeing. You can't change other people, you can only change yourself and your reactions.

Interestingly, I enjoy travel but it doesn't help these kinds of feelings in me.
posted by kadia_a at 9:38 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the big hypocrisies I see in the US is connected to consumerism, the fact that Americans will rave about "helping thy neighbor" in a crisis, but that often seems like the only time the community is privileged over the individual. Otherwise it's NIMBY, get out of my healthcare, who cares about the poor people, we want to gentrify, etc.

So maybe this might help you if you feel like consumerism is tied to a certain lonely individualism. Tutor English for immigrants. Become a Boys and Girls Club 'parent'. Go to the nursing home and just spend time with people - one of the saddest things, I think, is how American communities neglect the elderly. Build community in your community, where capitalism and consumerism tend to break it down.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:49 AM on July 30, 2012

Try plum village or deer park (thich naht hahn) it good for ennui and despair
posted by zia at 11:32 AM on July 30, 2012

I just moved back to the U.S. from a relatively rural yet tourism-impacted Andean town (2 years there). My experience was similar to Jessamyn's, it sounds like, and the meaningful aspect was that I had to create a life there, I had to deal with my privilege and people's resentment of it on a daily basis (I was held accountable, people talked shit to me/robbed or ripped me off because I was perceived to have more) yet I also had to find a way to live my life based on the limited resources available to everyone: no washing machine, no fridge, not well-constructed house, problematic infrastructure/power grid/water/sewage "systems", limited consumer goods and food stuff available. So, I learned a lot about how to realistically live without the American excesses and feel OK about myself. I don't believe you can necessarily get that experience as a tourist because you don't really experience day to day life away from the privilege of the tourism industry, both in terms of special amenities and lack of necessity of dealing with boring daily tasks like maintaining a household.

So, I think traveling to places where everyday life is much more difficult can be great, but may not necessarily provide you the therapeutic experience you're looking for in the short term because you will be forced to still be involved in the cycle of consumerism since you have to be constantly eating at restaurants, buying taxis and rooms in hostels, etc. Travel is a luxury, which it sounds like you realize, so it might just continue to bring up feelings of guilt for you.

I think it would be more meaningful to find ways of living where you are that step outside the U.S. cultural narrative of "what is necessary" to daily life. You will always be reminded of it while living in the U.S., but cutting down on your participation should allow you to cut yourself a break guilt-wise. Buy in bulk using reusable containers, don't buy canned or processed foods, get rid of specialized kitchen appliances and household gadgets (you don't need a microwave, that's for sure), get a broom instead of a swiffer, wash your laundry by hand, etc....sure, you may be able to argue that the positive effect of these actions is negligible but if you're focus in on beating angst and feeling better about your own actions, then what matters (at least for now) is if your actions feel ethical and positive for you. Pick one or two things, don't beat yourself up for not "doing more" and allow the tedium of tasks to have a meditative quality.

Also on the give-yourself-a-break note, I think you should travel if you want to travel and you've saved money to afford it. What about WWOOFING in the U.S. or abroad in a place where you will actually be required to participate in the daily labor of food production and potential rustic living? That may provide you a mental break and distraction from your anxieties. I recently heard about the the Buffalo Field Campaign that has volunteer opportunities. Also, I don't know what you're in school for, but when I worked at a relatively remote camp for a school year as a teacher, I also experienced a pleasant physical disconnect from the consumerist narrative (no cell reception throughout the week, little internet, no cable, etc.)
posted by dahliachewswell at 12:33 PM on July 30, 2012

Hi Apropos. First world problems are real. I have come to the conclusion that existential angst is best addressed with action. You're clearly a thinking person, so I guess it follows that you have ideas. Turn your ideas into action.

Also, as a person from privilege, broaden your horizons - not just overseas travel, but exposing yourself to other ways of living within your own culture. I hear there are a lot of people in the US without jobs and houses right now.

This doesn't exactly answer your question, but I think it's worth considering sometime.
posted by inkypinky at 2:39 PM on July 30, 2012

Trust me when I say that going backpacking around developing countries is going to give you worse ennui, especially if being around people who are not conscious of their privilege is a big deal.

If anything, academia is way better, due the huge proportion of socially conscious intelligent people who think deeply about this sort of thing.

I don't think there's anything wrong with travel, by any means, but I think that if you think hopping on a plane to Thailand is going to solve anything, well, honestly, it'll probably be worse.
posted by Sara C. at 3:01 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sara C.: "Trust me when I say that going backpacking around developing countries is going to give you worse ennui, especially if being around people who are not conscious of their privilege is a big deal. "

Totally fair. And probably, to be honest, in line with my expectations of how such a trip might go.

So, let me reframe one more time (in line with some of the suggestions above): what do I do with my time here? Is building a "minimalist" (God, I hate that word) part of the solution? Where do I meet the sorts of people who serve as the antidote to feeling alone in my feelings?
posted by Apropos of Something at 5:14 PM on July 30, 2012

I have been all over the world, and nothing ever broadened my horizons as much as volunteering at a hospice.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:23 PM on July 30, 2012

Where do you live? Do you live by yourself, or with a roommate or two, or with a bunch of people? I ask because even as an introvert, I've always been happiest when living in a communal situation -- I didn't realize that I was always just a little lonelier than I wanted to be until I went to live in a big house with about 15-20 friendly people in their mid-20s, where there was always someone to say hello to when I came in from work. It also helps you stay away from consumerism in your daily life, because non-consumption-focused activities like taking a walk or cooking dinner suddenly become satisfying sources of entertainment when you do them with other people. If you're not going to get stimulation and satisfaction from building a carefully curated collection of awesome stuff, the way various advertisers would like you to, you need to get it from somewhere, and the traditional method is having a friendly community. And possibly the easiest way to jump-start that is: live with a bunch of people!

(Though it doesn't have to be a ton of people. A good friend of mine lives with three housemates, and they cook dinner and rearrange furniture and have people over to dance and in general have a great time. Having a good home life is undervalued in the modern US, is I guess what I'm saying, and you can have a great one even as a young single person.)

(And also, don't let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that a specific person, or a specific type of person, can be your antidote. Obviously everybody has certain tastes in people, but a lot of the value of community is getting to live with people as they are. Getting really picky about what kind of people are good for you is getting a bit close to the curating-your-stuff mentality.)
posted by ostro at 7:49 PM on July 30, 2012

One short-term thing that I found helpful was attending a Vipassana retreat. During the retreat participants don't speak or make eye contact, don't make physical contact with any other person, don't read, write, consume media or listen to music, and don't have any contact with the outside world. Most of the day is taken up by meditation sessions, with a limited amount of meditation instruction. It is interesting watching your brain work when it is cut off from its normal sources of distraction/anxiety/guilt/pleasure.

One warning - the people who run the retreat try to make it friendly for practitioners of any religion/no religion, but they are still pretty heavily tied to Buddhist principles/language. However, personally I found these aspects easy to ignore.

Also, in theory the regime sounds really strict and cultish, but in practice the rules aren't being enforced by any authority... if you start to get weirded out and want to check your iphone or drive out to 7-11, no one will stop you. Similarly, if you start a retreat and it isn't working for you, there is no pressure to stay for the whole session. The retreats are donation-based and take place in the US (there are also some global options).
posted by GraceCathedral at 8:17 PM on July 30, 2012

I have come to the conclusion that existential angst is best addressed with action. You're clearly a thinking person, so I guess it follows that you have ideas. Turn your ideas into action.

There is no one answer. Except for this one: Turn your ideas into action.

Just do stuff, man. Just do stuff. You're going to die whether you sit around and think about stuff or not, and it's much more fun and interesting and less depressive to have an idea and then act on it, see what happens, figure out what went wrong, learn, and act again. That's the problem you're experiencing: too much choice, not enough action. Stop worrying if backpacking through Italy is the answer - if it sounds good, do it, and take note if it actually was good and why and tailor your next action accordingly. It's a problem of privilege - you don't really have to do much, relatively speaking, to survive. If you simply can't make yourself start acting, get therapy to figure out why (which is actually an action itself).
posted by 3FLryan at 9:38 AM on July 31, 2012

How about going to spend a week or two at an intentional community? There is a whole encyclopedia of intentional communities that you can find at the library, and a lot of them accept visitors if you are willing to work. If you can find a group that lines up well with your own values, you can see how they are grappling with the same issues. And you could maybe feel less alone.
posted by feets at 3:54 PM on July 31, 2012

Since I first saw this post I have been thinking about it. I can be a great deal like you. I think. It is what I like to do. I am a man of ideas and theories. One day a theory led me to make a new object with my bare hands. It was fulfilling. So much of our days can be chalked up to moving bits around on a screen and at the end of the day we often can not point to a single thing that we produced. We do make our constructions of data and words but they are hard to hold in a way that makes sense to our entire brains. But when you craft an object, any object you can hold it. Bringing forth an object into the world asserts your existence in a way that spreadsheets never can. So I say take a vacation to learn a hand craft. I have never been but I have long wanted to attend the John C, Campbell folk school
Best of luck and I hope you find what makes you content.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 9:26 PM on August 4, 2012

« Older Can you help me find this vintage (1999) web comic...   |   Scratching my head over a Verification of Illness... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.