“Living in a village forever changes your outlook on being an individual.” Or so I thought as I stared out to sea.
“Do you like the ice cream, my little angel. Oh, I do love you, my dear”
“I love you too, Granny”
A boy and his grandmother: the most memorable image from Malta.
A year and a half ago, I took my last sweat-inducing, 15-person crammed ride in the flatbed of an open pickup and said goodbye to the family that had taken care of me for two years. In Malta, I was reminded of my family in Africa and what they taught me about life and happiness.
The pursuit of happiness. Who hasn’t spent miserable angsty teenage nights wondering what it all means and how we can ever be happy? Then, one day, you wake up, your zits are gone, somehow you are making enough to pay for your indulgences, and you realize you are no longer angsty and angry, but you are no less lost.
Blindly grasping for meaning we muddle through this world and hope for happiness. Some people achieve it and some do not. I travel to try to define my own world and how to find happiness within it.
I have come to the conclusion that happiness is gained through a sense of purpose AND (perhaps more importantly) a strong social network.
Western cultures tend to steer toward the individual. Personal goals and personal interests are often more important than the interest of the community. Thus most of our relationships are “chosen” rather than “given.”
Many cultures view themselves as a part of a larger entity. When everyone looks outwardly rather than inwardly an intangible support network is formed and fewer people fall through the cracks.
In the west, materialistically, we don’t really need other people. If you are anything like me, you probably make enough money to support your day-to-day needs and often we choose to live our lives based on our interests rather than building a network around our “given” group of people. As far as I can see, the only “given” relationship that we have is our family, but even our family has become less important.
Malta is a very Catholic country and family still plays a central role. Because Malta is a small country, families are in constant contact with one another. Sunday lunches after church are mandatory, and I am sure they go on for hours. If I were part of this tradition, this would drive me crazy. Having to sit through hours of your parents silly questions has never been anyone’s idea of a good time, but this simple act of frequently sitting down to a meal together creates a close bond between people that allows them to cope with stressful situations when they arise. By knowing that you have others around you that will support you, you also have the strength to survive the stressful situation.
While researching this blog post, I met with a friend who studies psychology. I asked him how social interactions influence an individual. Here are a few of the things he mentioned: 1. Chronic social isolation increases the risk of death as much as obesity or smoking 2. Social connections can act as a buffer in the most stressful situations and 3. Dissemination of information over the phone decreases to 10% and to 1% in text messages. My conclusion: We are social creatures and in order to live well we must sustain face-to-face interactions with the world.
In America, we are constantly moving. I too have been on the run for nearly 5 years. Each time I move, although I still love and miss my parents, it seems to me a bit of that support is lost.
As of today, I have 1,001 Facebook friends. If I died tomorrow, how many of them would come to my funeral? How many of them would remember me in five years? It’s a scary thought because I have realized there would be very few attendees.
This past year my Tate (Oshikwanyama for father) died. One of the biggest comforts for me during that tough time was knowing that the entire village would be at the funeral because he had always looked outward and worked hard on building sustainable and long-lasting relationships.
That is why the boy and the grandmother affected me. It was his grandmother and not his mother who was taking care of him. It represented to me a larger support network that will allow this child to grow up well, or perhaps not well, but at least the village is there and with that there is hope…