From what I can discern, the United States has a momentous phobia of vulnerability. We are the land of bigger, better, brighter and fake it till you make it with leaders who are entirely composed of bluff (*Donald Trump*). A country delicately balanced on our perceptions of life without failure and living without weaknesses.
Quickly letting those that are strangers into our beliefs, sadnesses, and families is uncommon at best, and an innate need to cover up our fear of letting others see our quirks and pitfalls is perhaps why, partly, we are loud and eager to smile. We are cordial sure, but it is typically a reserved cordial, no matter how boisterous and open we often seem.
In Macedonia, the country I am currently living in for a month, sharing meals from the same communal pot is ubiquitous, even among people one might normally refer to as merely acquaintances or strangers. Throughout most of the Balkans, there is also the lovely tradition of never splitting checks. Why should money be so objective? So individualistic? The United States’ obsession with money and capitalism is an oft talked about and an oft analyzed subject, something I feel no need to go into right now. But, in short, Americans are highly insecure of our own vulnerabilities, which is intimately tied to our emphasis on individualism.
Obviously, this manifests itself in a multitude of different ways, but I am interested how this trait plays out specifically in places without walls, in other words, the outdoors.
The outdoors, in turn, is associated with exploration and wilderness, the very base of our country. The New World was founded* on the concept of facing perils alone, and I absolutely believe this legacy continues to influence us today. Americans, it seems, are bred to romanticize being outside, a place that distinctly lacks walls, a place where one might assume individuals vulnerabilities are on full display.
But here’s the catch, if we are alone, or with a group of select few that we trust, then the vulnerabilities we keep so carefully concealed remain hidden. So in essence, Americans are fine with living a life without walls as long as we are alone.
Simultaneously to this, the outdoors is an acceptable place for vulnerability not to let it out, but to get rid of it. Outdoor exploration is a perpetual process of facing ones own vulnerabilities for the purpose of purging them from oneself. Examining history will prove that in many cultures this is also evident, for example a solo male journey into the wild for the purpose of facing one’s fears to conquer them and become a man is universal, but perhaps amplified in America thanks to our culture of westward expansion, and the fact that we have had so much open unexplored land so recently.
To move onto an entirely different manifestation of this phenomenon surrounding vulnerability and the outdoors, the drinking habits of teenagers are to be noted. The city of Skopje, where I am currently based, has a big park, appropriately titled “City Park” (see first photo), and it is the center of teenage and young adult social life. Come nightfall, and indeed until early morning, the park is filled with Macedonian kids just hanging out on benches, around the fountains, and in the several nightclubs that open up in the park during the summer. They’re drinking, as teenagers often are (especially when it is legal), but much more importantly they’re engaging with each other- it is a whole city of youth laughing, talking, and interacting with each other. This is not an isolated event – in almost every park in Europe you can find the exact same scene.
Below are two selfies taken during two really good nights that consisted mainly of drinking in parks, one from Vienna and one from Skopje.
This culture is revolutionary when placed in comparison to the youth culture of the United States. Whereas we* party locked away in houses or dorm rooms, with little to no chance of even being in the presence of someone not explicitly invited to the gathering, Europeans are doing their socialization in an environment where being around strangers is not only accepted, but the norm. This ties into our vulnerabilities, because, honestly when are we at our most vulnerable if not drunk and tired at 2am? It comes down to intimacy, which is intrinsically linked to vulnerability. Drinking, talking, and being near one another are all forms of intimacy, albeit to varying degrees, and in the United States we cannot stand it.
The third manifestation of this vulnerability concept worth mentioning is transportation. This is the most cliche, as most people are aware that the public transportation system in the United States is horrific. I was aware also, but the knowledge certainly wasn’t quite as prominent as it has become traveling in Europe.
The quickest and partly legitimate answers to the question of why our public transportation system is terrible are that 1) our country is huge and spread out, making public transit not as practical as it is in Europe* and 2) we love our cars and our freedom and our individualism. I believe a more nuanced answer would also include the fact that the United States has a systematic terror of communism, and therefore a systematic terror of any left-seeming entities like public services. The reasons for our lackluster system would also, of course, include vulnerability. Our cars are our own personal oasis, because god forbid strangers see us eat or sleep.
I truly believe that Americans create walls of nothing – in all contexts of a human life – to protect ourselves from vulnerability, closeness, and intimacy. This piece is a much a critique of American culture as a plea for love and change and a recognition of the human need for vulnerability.
*I feel like every one of these asterisks is a social justice add on, but YO let us take a minute to acknowledge the Native Americans that we stole this continent from.
*I have been informed that some people in California DO drink in parks so I’ll note that my experiences are coming from the perspective of an Alabamian and an Upstate New Yorker.
*This can be in part dismissed by the knowledge that South America is huge but still employs the use of many buses.