I spent my first year of marriage terrified. (Sees readers look at title and glares. Nothing off color you ‘orrible people. Have a carp.) You see, I’d moved away from all family support structure to a country where — still to this day — things work so differently I have trouble explaining them to my parents.
We were living on very little and to make things more interesting, were making up for the dating we hadn’t done prior to marriage, so there were movies and dinners out. For various reasons Dan also could count on no help from his family, most of it being that he was an adult and determined to make his own way.
So here we were, two 22 year old kids, who often got to the end of the month with $6 in the bank, and no safety net whatsoever.
The culture I came from was centered around a big tribe, and of course you could fail, but your family was there to cushion the fall. When I didn’t have a tutoring job in college (some semesters I didn’t find any students) I had to save a bit on luxuries, but I wasn’t going to go without a roof over my head or food.
The realization that there was nothing between us and utter destitution but Dan’s job (and later my jobs, sometimes, but I never made much) made me very scared. Particularly because this was the mid-eighties, time of sudden layoffs.
Where I came from the government was there to provide health care and education and in extreme cases if you managed to piss off your entire tribe, money for food. This is something that didn’t change through the revolution and shocks in the 70s — since the 40s or so, the government was a big old safety net. National or international, socialists are socialists.
I thought the US was very hard, very cold, and there was no one to help should we fail.
I don’t remember when I stopped thinking that. We hit rock bottom on money a few times, one of them while paying for the complete cluster… er… mess that was my older son’s delivery while both of us were unemployed. That was the time we actually considered going to a soup kitchen. CONSIDERED, mind, but we never could get ourselves to go in. Yeah, we were hungry and broke, but it seemed like that was something reserved for other people, people in REAL trouble. We went to bed hungry that night, and the next day something happened and we got a small payment and got rice and frozen veggies which lasted us a week, and then Dan found a job…
And we were okay if very tight for a few years, and then he got a raise. And until he was unemployed years later, we were okay provided we were frugal.
The last two rock-bottoms we hit were both while paying double mortgage or mortgage and rent while selling houses. Our “Rock bottom” seems to be getting shallower. We were very tight last year because rent and mortgage, and the house took forever to get ready to sell (it actually sold very quickly) but the “tight” was a matter of foregoing all luxuries and some necessities like car repairs, not of foregoing meals. (Though of picking cheaper meals, yes.)
But even in those rock bottom times, I wasn’t as scared as that first year. The feeling no one was there to look after me if I did something stupid was terrifying.
I don’t remember when I stopped being scared, or when I traded it for “we can handle it.” Yes, a lot of it was getting a bit of a cushion in the bank, but even when that is gone, like last year, I wasn’t as terrified as that year.
I think the greater part of it was having friends who are like family, and knowing that if worst came to worst, I could show up at Amanda’s or Kate’s or half a dozen other people, hungry and with only the clothes on my body and they wouldn’t even ask a question, just tell me to come in and make up a bed.
Look, we’re humans. We’re built on a great ape frame. All of us want the tribe to be there, to care for us. We might never need it, but we want to know someone gives a damn if a lion leaps out of a bush and mauls us, metaphorically speaking. And a nuclear family is not big enough to give that sense of protection.
Yet our economics, and in the US our demographics, conspire to make the nuclear family about the biggest unit most of us can count on, and a lot of people not even that.
Is it any wonder that the left (and those on the right who turn their hopeful eyes to Trump) want the government to be a daddy who steps in and saves them if things get too scary?
Both views of government are valid, in a way. The “let us alone and let us do” and the “look after me.” And both have trade offs.
I wasn’t wrong in being scared. The situation we placed ourselves in when we moved away from kith and kin and faced the world without a safety net but each other was terrifying. We scraped by okay, but we might not have. If one or the other of us had got seriously ill, we had no one to turn to but charity, which we were both too proud to take.
If we’d decided when we got married to move to Portugal instead, we’d never have faced that. Because in layoffs, or even while selling a house, we could have punted back to living with my family for a few months (or years. Or forever. No one bats an eye at that there, and several households hold more than one family.) And we wouldn’t have worried about how to pay for the boys’ schooling, or surgery when I needed it.
Without those dips, we’d have been able to take nice vacations and do a lot of other things we’ve never done. (Look guys, our idea of a vacation is a long weekend at Embassy Suites in Denver. One time we were able to afford five days in a row. We still talk about this as the most fun, EVER.)
So, am I sorry we didn’t do that? Not only no, but h*ll no. Why not?
Because being looked after has a price, whether it is by your family or the government. Oh, my parents would have looked after us, and counted it as nothing, but the return is to do what they deem fit. I.e. Mom has this thing about my wearing jeans. If I were in her house, under her roof, it would be skirt suits all the way. And then there’s this writing thing. While dad would secretly approve of it, both of them would have told me to stick with teaching (which I would have done had I stayed there) because it’s steady income. And if I were dependent on them when my income failed, I couldn’t say no. I mean, how could I take risks with other people’s money.
So, you say, what about the government safety net? They can’t tell you how to dress or what to do.
Sure. Well, they can, but it hasn’t got to that point (yet.)
I don’t know what the safety net is there now — I haven’t been back for more than a couple of weeks at a time for 30 years — but let’s suppose they have — not unusual in the EU — unlimited and generous unemployment benefits.
Let’s suppose I’d started out teaching school and was so bad at it I got laid off. (Bad? No. Mouthy? Yes. Comes to the same in the end.)
Let’s suppose they had those unlimited unemployment benefits. If I were living in a place where family contributed, it might be enough I had no reason to find another job. So, instead, I’d decide to write.
Here’s the thing: there would be no reason to try to finish something or even to start something “saleable”. I could be an artist working for immortal glory.
Which is to say, there would never have been a need to grow up and live in the real world.
In the same way there would never have been a need to depend on friends, which means there would never have been a need to be dependable friends, when we’re needed.
And in the end the “hard” countries that don’t smooth out that curve for you seem to result in more freedom and prosperity and greater innovation.
Is it the result of less regulations? Who knows? Perhaps it’s the result of something in the brain that only wakes up when under stress.
Or perhaps it’s the fact they’re more in tune with the gods of the copybook headings: “If you don’t work, you die.”
Even in a, at worst, medium soft country like the US, there is an incentive to get out there and work. And half of success is showing up and rolling up your sleeves. So by definition there will more successful people than in a soft-soft country where you have no incentive to get up and do something.
The truth is as much as we want others to take care of us, humans are not designed to live soft. We thrive on adversity. We adapt to the strangest circumstances. Only infants and children get taken care of unconditionally. And it’s fine for them. It’s fine for the elderly too. They’ve made their contribution and now can’t, it’s up to family/friends/us to look after them.
BUT the price of being taken care of all your life is being a child all your life. No one who hasn’t faced that abyss without a net and made the changes needed to survive knows what being grown up means.
It’s hard growing up in a soft world, because you have to kick your own behind into it, and most of us aren’t good at that.
So in the end, the soft countries even with all the nets end up with a worse standard of life and probably a lower standard of happiness too. (If your struggles don’t matter, nothing matters.)
If you have a choice, choose the hard path. You grow the calluses to deal with it. And in the end, you and your surroundings will be better for it.