It had been almost three years since I had last seen her. We had only met that once, but the fact that we had both been invited to the party of our mutual friend made catching up comfortable. The comfort also had a lot to do with her being a teacher. Good teachers have a way of making it easy to talk to them.
As often happens when I’m talking to someone who hasn’t been privy to the story of my life over the past couple years, the conversation turned to my year in Europe. She was fascinated, and I was all too eager to extoll the Scandinavian culture that had so kindly welcomed me and to reminisce selfishly about the way that my life had come together so nicely during that year. Being a good conversationalist, she egged me on: “Do you think you could live there long-term?”
I paused only for a moment as an uncontrollable grin spread across my face. Just the thought got my heart fluttering, and I responded leadingly and succinctly, “In a heartbeat.”
Without missing a beat, she followed up with the question I wanted her to ask but knew she shouldn’t because I knew I couldn’t lie. I’m a terrible liar – a trait I’ve intentionally cultivated.
“Are you actively working on something?”
And with my knowing smile, she entered a closely held circle of people that didn’t even include my family or our mutual friend.
I’ve explained many times what I don’t like about being in the United States, but like anyone else, I can concoct an argument for just about any belief. And since high school debate team, I’ve gotten pretty good at defending even the most absurd positions. That’s the way our brains work; our verbal brains defend the beliefs already contrived by the deeper cognitive functions. In a way, the truest beliefs are not those that you can reason but those that you can’t. Those who are in touch with these “gut feelings” have the best insight into their deepest selves. The workings of the inner brain have been romanticized throughout history as the soul, the heart, the spirit, an aura, a third eye, the holy spirit, and countless others. These are ways of visualizing and explaining feelings that cannot be explained.
It’s only recently that I’ve tried to get fully in touch with these feelings, but I’ve also become aware of the plasticity of the brain and how much our beliefs and preferences can change. I’ve tried to use this to convince myself that I wanted to come back to the US. I used the argument that I wanted to live in the US more than I wanted to stay in Europe with the guilt hanging over my head of hiding away in my Scandinavian paradise while there is so much work to be done here.
It has been a complete and total failure. It’s worse now that it has ever been. While I could present you a host of reasons, the most fundamental fact is that it just doesn’t feel right here. Indeed, I did lay out several pages’ worth of reasons just before I left the first time with no intention of returning. I closed that manifesto with the announcement that I would search the world over for a place that I felt more at home. Only if I were able to conclude that the United States was actually #1 would I come back permanently and probably become the proudest American.
It took less than a year to find what I was looking for, and I already knew where to look. The Nordic region is a collection of mostly secular, socially minded, and education-focused nations situated in a region of the world that I have always found captivating. After my life-changing experience under the northern lights, I have been even more obsessed with the Arctic region, so the draw to Scandinavia has become even stronger.
After coming back really only out of necessity, I found a way to get my foot in the door and spent a year in Scandinavia. The search for a place in which I fit better did not take long at all. I knew on that first day in Oslo that Norway was going to be the place. Almost every experience I had over the ensuing two months reinforced that belief.
At one point, I had a goal of relocating to a hypothetical society where I would feel more at home than I do here. Apparently, I’ve abandoned that goal. At least, I haven’t been doing anything to get closer to it. If anything, I’ve gotten further away. I did so in order to take a detour in pursuit of a different goal. But the thing I didn’t consider (at least not fully enough) was why I couldn’t pursue both simultaneously. Perhaps it is true that I can have more of an impact on the development of renewable energy working directly in the industry in one of the fastest growing markets in the world, but that doesn’t mean all the other options will be completely ineffectual.
About a year ago, I wrote that I had no real option other than to come back and do the most good in the US. I was trying to convince myself, but I didn’t believe those words as I wrote them. It felt exactly the same as writing that article about all the touristy things I did in Japan. For those who like doing touristy things, sure, that was an honest article. But for me, it was bullshit, and I had to write a response on my personal blog to explain how I really felt (remember, I’m a terrible liar).
I’m going full woo-woo here and getting in touch with my inner feelings, those that don’t come from rational thought, those that take years of practice to learn how to express. They’re something like this:
I hate this god-forsaken hellhole, and I’m legitimately ashamed to carry its passport. I feel disbelief over the fact that apparently, it doesn’t get much better than this. I feel resentful and angry that I allowed the decisions of 62 million strangers, about whom I couldn’t give two shits, to decide the fate of my life when they elected a government whose ideas are anathema to the sustainable future of mankind. I feel more trapped, oppressed, and cornered in this so-called “land of the free” than I have anywhere else. I feel the pitifully dark humor of the fact that when my friends abroad asked what I missed about the US, the only thing I could come up with was “Big City Burrito“. I feel lonely and helpless because I can’t connect with people who live here by choice. I’m frustrated because my efforts to eat well, live slowly, and reduce my carbon footprint are usually met with confusion and ostracization.
But mostly, I feel disappointed in myself. I feel weak for being unable to stick to my commitments, confused because I so often question them, and lost because I don’t have any answers. I feel stupid for trying to force myself into a place I knew I wouldn’t fit. I feel afraid of taking with me the bad habits I’ve cultivated. I feel anxious because I don’t know if the situation is the problem or if it’s just me.
Nevertheless, I know that staying here isn’t helping. Perhaps being in the US is the best way for me to contribute to a future of sustainability, but it will take a man stronger than me to do it. Though I may be amplifying my efforts here, does it make up for the handicap of only operating at 60% of my optimal functioning? Is it worth the cost? Is it worth the downward trend of my personal development? Is it even sustainable for me?
On the first day of my new job with Invenergy, the Monday after Thanksgiving 2017, I was to bring in a proof of citizenship for some tax documents. I had recently gotten a new passport, and as I sat at my empty desk waiting for my new boss to have a moment to go through the perfunctory onboarding, I flipped through its empty pages. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What am I doing here?” The feeling hasn’t left.
It has become painfully obvious to me over the past several months that I’m not done. I’m not done living the vagabond life of a lost and confused millennial. I’m not done exploring the world. I’m not done exploring myself.
The plans I was actively working on have since fallen through, but perhaps it was for the best. Some new opportunities have opened up, and I’ll have a place to stay, at least for a few months. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I know one thing: I’m going somewhere, anywhere away from here. There are few things I know for certain, but one of them is that I like who I am better when I’m abroad, where I have the freedom to set others’ expectations of me, where the baggage of my past does not weigh me down, where the world doesn’t give me a chance to get too comfortable. I’m off to a place where I can keep growing.
I will leave this country on July 3rd, 2018 when I fly from San Francisco to Chiang Mai after a week visiting friends in Seattle and Portland. The first mission is to simplify things. The first stop will be a month in Thailand, where I will catch up with a good friend and spend ten days inside my own head at a silent meditation retreat. After a bit more traveling, I’ll find my way to Norway, where I’ll spend (at least) a month working on an organic farm just on the other side of the hill from my old dorm in Tønsberg. There are options for the next step, but I haven’t set anything yet. These next few months will allow me plenty (perhaps too much) time to think about what ought to come next.
And so, with this, I say once and for all, goodbye, America. I may return to visit family and friends occasionally, but I cannot imagine a future in which I would again choose to try to make the US my home.