The Good Life

If you were walking down the street today in Cluj-Napoca, or any other city in Romania, you’d have no idea that it is “Black Friday”. Slowly but continuously ramped up over the past 20 years in America, the day after Thanksgiving (which is always on a Thursday) is often another day off of work for many people – this fact plus intentionally heavily marketed price reductions on some items creates a frenzy of retail transactions nicknamed “Black Friday” by a Philadelphia traffic reporter, a name that has stuck.

It’s “Black Friday” here too though (using the English phrase), but only in two locations – the malls and online retailers. In Romania these are both venues exclusive to people with money, or the access to it in the form of credit. In other words, “Black Friday” and participating in it is an activity for the segment of society that is upwardly mobile and therefore it is a clear status symbol. Merely mentioning “Black Friday” on your internet feed (Twitter, FB, etc) is a symbol that you’re a member of this upper and better class.

Even though my posting has been sporadic as of late, I assure you that I’ve been working more than ever on the same ideas that I’ve been writing about. Just a few days ago I wrote extensively about fear and how pervasive it is in this society (Romania). Since then I’ve continued to probe where these “fault lines” are, to find the very edge of what provokes fear for my Romanian neighbors and, just as I expected, I have now been subject to a veritable flood of warnings.

Mind you, I am not now nor shall I be doing anything illegal, only testing these invisible, unspoken boundaries here in Romania of what provokes fear. To use a metaphor, imagine that you and I were walking in some town and there was a shortcut to our destination but it meant crossing over land owned by a rich man with a reputation of being quite fearsome. The shortcut would save us a lot of time but we’d be taking a risk that the rich man would discover us trespassing on his land and then he would inflict some sort of punishment on us. The question then becomes, do you risk getting caught or do you take the lengthy, safe way around?

My metaphor is a little shoddy however because trespassing actually is a crime and a violation of laws and ordinances, however minor. The areas I’m dealing with in reality do not cross this line but do reflect the same sort of risk analysis – how much are you willing to gamble in order to achieve the things that you want?

This isn’t an idle question, not at all. I’ve written extensively about widespread apathy in this country (and apparently in several neighboring countries), something that piqued my natural inquisitiveness. Every day (it seems) I hear Romanians complaining about X and Y and Z and yet whenever I challenge them with, “Okay, you’re right about the existence of these problems but what are you going to do about them?” I never get an answer.

There’s an old joke that a Romanian never needs to go to a doctor because they’ve already diagnosed all of their aches and pains in lengthy detail. But when you ask them what they are doing to achieve a “cure”, it’s like you’re asking them a question in a foreign language. Diagnosing problems in minute detail is a national obsession. Delivering solutions is something that only God and maybe the European Union is expected to do.

Despite the cold, lately I’ve also been spending a lot of time outdoors for a project, one result of which is that I have continuously seen my original impression as outlined in The Ballad of the J. Crew catalog buttressed over and over. The vast majority of people in this city are phenomenally well-dressed, not just in terms of “brand names” but in the elegant arrangement of clothes, shoes and accessories.

That’s all pleasant for me (and other people) as an observer but I’ve begun to realize that it’s not necessarily as pleasant for the participants. Of course some people really do enjoy “dressing up” and coordinating their wardrobes and keeping up with what’s new in fashion and for them living in Romania might be quite pleasurable. But many people are under tremendous pressure to live up to these standards, to conform, to fit in, to “be cool” and be accepted.

I’ve been speaking to several people who told me about how what passes for acceptable in Town X is only the minimum threshold for when you make it to Cluj. Once you get here (or other high-status cities like Bucharest or Timisoara), suddenly you’ve got to kick it up to a far higher level.

If you’re American, think of a person from a small town moving to and fitting in and being accepted by high society in New York. If you’re British, think of someone moving to London, French a person moving to Paris, etcetera. It’s a fairly commonplace thing across the globe but here in Romania there seems to be an extra dose of fear involved. First, you’ve got to “make it” good in whatever village or town you were born in. And then you’ve got to move to a high status city in Romania and “make it” there. Only when you’re living amongst the top 5% elite in a high status city will the anxiety (theoretically) be resolved, and obviously that’s not going to happen for the vast majority of people and so the pressure never subsides.

Lately I’ve been trolling through the “great” books written by all of the marketing and advertising pioneers, the people about whom I’ve written extensively already. A very small percentage of marketers and economists today believe that people do things for “rational” reasons, meaning based on ideas and concepts that come from conscious decisions that are logical. The vast majority of advertisers and marketers however work on the concept that irrational emotions are the impetus for nearly all decisions (including what people buy) and therefore manipulating these emotions is the key to more profits.

One of the key emotions being deliberately manipulated by them is fear, and thats the literature I’ve been reading for the past week or so. And you can imagine how strongly I reacted when I found the following quote from Ernest Dichter, one of the pioneers of emotion manipulation for profit:

If anxiety becomes too strong, however, it can lead to escapism and avoidance of action.

“Widespread apathy” is just another way to say “avoidance of action”! Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere, which is the study of anxiety, a cousin of fear. And there are thousands and thousands of books which discuss anxiety.

To give you a quick way to differentiate them, imagine that you are in the forest and suddenly come across a very hostile bear. Fear of this bear is quite normal and actually healthy because hopefully your body becoming flooded with hormones (stimulated by the fear) will save your life. Anxiety on the other hand, would be you walking in the middle of a busy city street while being worried or fearful of a bear attack.

In other words, fear is when you perceive that your safety is threatened. Anxiety on the other hand, is an over-estimation of a threat to your safety. Being in the woods and seeing a bear will make you fearful because your safety is threatened. But being fearful of a bear attack in the middle of a busy city street is an over-estimation of the threat and is thus anxiety, often referred to as “worry”.

Advertisers love anxiety because they can hype it (your breath stinks which means you’ll have no friends!) while simultaneously placing their product as the resolution to the anxiety (our toothpaste will give you fresh breath and then you’ll be cool and popular and have lots of friends). It’s an old recipe for making big profits and continues to be used to this day because it works.

Here in Romania I am constantly dealing with these twin problem of fear and anxiety. There truly are genuine threats to safety. An evil employer threatening to fire you puts your financial safety in jeopardy and is definitely something to be feared. But anxiety is the over-estimation of a threat, and I see a lot more of this every day than I do legitimate fear.

In my original metaphor, it was assumed that the rich owner of the land on which we were trespassing was quite vigilant and posed a substantive risk. But what if he was old, and mostly blind, and that we were more afraid of his reputation than anything he’d actually done lately? Then that would be more of a case of anxiety than “genuine” fear.

So here’s little old me, surrounded by people who constantly hype up the dangers and pitfalls and risks of doing all kinds of fairly innocuous things. And my task (so to speak) is to separate the genuine risks from a lot of overblown anxiety-inducing hype. Is an evil “mafia” really going to take punitive action if I film the outside of a shop while standing on a public sidewalk? Well let’s do it and find out!

That’s just one tiny example, by the way, of some of the things I am actively doing. In fact, the greatest motivator for me to do something is to have five different Romanians all warn me against doing it because I know then that I’ve discovered exactly where the “line” is. If several different people are fearful of it then I know I’m right on the line between safety and risk. If you’re American or Australian or Indian and reading this, I think you know already what I’ve been finding. If you’re Japanese or Hungarian or Romanian you probably think I am both stupid and foolish.

Quite simply put, about 99% of the time, it’s a clear-cut case of anxiety. Everyone around me is constantly over-estimating the threat level. Back in America I used to walk through a very low-income neighborhood (called a “ghetto”) just about every day. And I knew a police captain (who was black) in that city who would constantly warn me that I was in danger as a white, unarmed person walking through a black ghetto. In other words, a black man who deals with crime every day (and therefore knows what he’s talking about) was fearful that something bad would happen to me if I continued to walk there.

Well I’m here today, alive and well because not once in several years did anything bad happen to me by walking through that neighborhood. It turns out that even an expert (black police captain) was completely wrong and that what ostensibly seemed to be “accurately” a real fear was overblown anxiety. Not only was I never robbed or beaten or shot or stabbed or anything violent but I was never even harassed, jeered or intimidated. In fact, most people ignored me and the few interactions I did have over the years were quite cordial and pleasant.

What Dichter and Edward Bernays and the rest of the advertising people know however is that fear is never rational. Later when we make it back home we can tell our story about the bear and rationalize our fear but this rationalization always comes afterwards. First we have the emotion of fear and then only later we decide whether it was “legitimate” (fear) or “illegitimate” (anxiety). Therefore no amount of rational discussion or evidence could ever allay the police captain’s anxiety. I could walk through that ghetto for 20 years without a problem and he would still remain convinced that there was a great risk to my safety.

So therefore in Romania I could film these “mafia controlled” stores for 20 years and show that nothing bad happened to me and it still would not allay anyone’s anxiety any more than years of successfully making it through the ghetto allayed the black police captain’s anxiety. Likewise I could drive a car here in Romania with the window down, never once contract an illness, and it still wouldn’t reduce anyone’s anxiety over the threat of the curent (draft/draught).

Just as with the police captain in question, a form of rationalization gets interpolated into the “results”. I didn’t get attacked or robbed or anything else in the ghetto because I was “damn lucky” in his words. Romanians like to rationalize my optimism and immunity to many things on the fact that I’m American for the same reason. If a supposedly vicious and aggressive dog (or a cat, in one case) doesn’t attack me then it’s because I have a magical “gift with animals”. And so on and so forth, all of these real situations in my real life that can often be documented and yet (almost) nobody will ever believe that what’s true for me is also true for them and therefore the anxiety persists.

By the way, I walked through that particular ghetto because it was the shortest route home and by that time in my life I had already made a conscious decision to eschew driving (and therefore walked just about everywhere). The police captain was right in that many crimes (including violent ones) were committed by residents of that neighborhood. So why did nothing bad happen to me?

What I knew and he apparently didn’t know (or didn’t want to know) was the easily demonstrable fact that most crimes are committed against other members of what sociologists call a “cohort”. In this case, it means that poor black people in the ghetto primarily rob and steal from other poor black people in the ghetto. For this, and many other factors, I knew that precisely because I was obviously an outsider with white skin (and dressing distinctively differently) that the risk to my well-being was nearly zero.

Likewise, the reason otherwise vicious and aggressive dogs (and cats) don’t attack me isn’t because of some mystical “gift with animals” but because I have extensively studied animal behavior and psychology. Dogs especially have readily observable “body language” and are social animals with well-defined behavioral traits. If you understand all this, you know how to approach a dog or a cat and interact with them positively.

But if the way dogs and cats and other animals behave is some kind of mysterious thing to you then yes, I can understand the interpretation that an otherwise vicious dog wagging its tail around me has a magical component to it. I should add here that this specific example of the dog happened to me this week so this is hardly some intellectual thought exercise.

Romanians are absolutely riddled with anxiety, clearly identifiable as over-estimations of threats to their happiness and well-being. Which brings me to yet another passage about Ernest Dichter:

Products designed and sold in line with people’s deepest, albeit irrational, internal needs will constitute realistic and realizable small steps towards a better life, if not the Good Life.

It’s interesting that Marx and Engels’ books were clearly focused on creating societies that could provide the “Good Life” for people. These ideas morphed into authoritarian Communism, first in Russia and then “exported” at the barrel of a gun to Romania by the end of WW2. Likewise, the native Romanian fascism period (and all that mystical shit about the Archangel Michael) and “Black Friday” consumer capitalism of the present day also purports to be the path to the “Good Life”. Even back in the medieval period, the Church delineated a clear path to the “Good Life”, even if a lot of it was to be realized only in a secondary plane of existence.

When you’re dealing with this existence on planet Earth however, any plan to achieve the Good Life must actually deliver on some level or else anxiety levels increase. In other words, if you believe that there truly is a way to achieve the Good Life but you haven’t achieved it yet, you will genuinely feel a tremendous amount of anxiety towards the things or people that are preventing you from achieving it. I didn’t make it out to the malls today but I am quite confident that they are packed with people who believe that shopping is a realizable small step towards the Good Life.

If money were flowing and there was some kind of economic boom going on here in Romania, I am quite confident that anxiety levels about all things would be dramatically reduced. But that’s not happening. Romania is deeply in debt, constantly reminded that it is the second poorest member of the European Union, and the political “leadership” in this country is fractured, corrupt and staggeringly ineffective at bringing citizens any closer to the Good Life. Millions of Romanians have already emigrated to where the Good Life (supposedly) is and millions more are preparing to follow them.

But for those who are “stuck” here, it’s a bitter fight for the last crumb of bread and everyone and anyone is your natural enemy when you have a high level of anxiety and your tenuous grasp on even a portion of the Good Life is constantly in jeopardy. This is why so many bar and club owners get paranoid and fearful when I openly film inside their establishments. It’s not that they can logically construct a rational reason why my filming would hurt them. They’re just so anxiety-ridden that anything unusual escalates their fear that something bad might happen.

So if anxiety and fear aren’t rational and no amount of explanations or factual evidence can assuage these emotions then what is the solution? If there’s a Good Life out there and a way to get it (own lots of expensive shit) and every one of your neighbors is fiercely competing against you for it, then your levels of anxiety are just going to increase. If nothing changes, I can confidently predict that sales of drugs that (supposedly) reduce anxiety are going to increase here in Romania in the next few years.

But it turns out that the solution to relieving crippling anxiety is by redefining a certain definition. If you believe the path to the Good Life involves driving an expensive car and living in a palace, statistically you’re fucked unless you’re a member of an elite network of ex-Securitate officials and corrupt governmental officials. Until that happens, you’re trapped between the anxiety of never having enough material success and pushing yourself to impress those people who might help you achieve it.

If, on the other hand, you believe the path to the Good Life involves having two cats at home, as I do, then anxiety and fear evaporates because you can achieve that Good Life. It’s just a question of definition, which is why there is such a schism in Romanian society between urban, modern people and “backwards” peasant people in the countryside. In the city, achieving the Good Life is largely a question of money and material acquisition. In the countryside, religious beliefs are much stronger, as the Good Life is the one defined by the church (what to do to make sure you’re going to heaven, etc).

Which makes sense. If you’re a rural peasant in Romania, material acquisition on a grand scale is essentially impossible. But it is possible to adhere to what the church defines as the Good Life. And so then you see thousands of people acquiescing to the bizarre, sometimes outlandish (to the foreign observer) requirements of the Romanian Orthodox Church, with lots of rituals, pilgrimages and pageantry. A lot of urban Romanians are extremely hostile to this kind of “hyper religiosity” even though they think of themselves as Christian believers and the source of this hostility is a conflict in definitions of what constitutes the Good Life. Is owning a Porsche and shopping at Zara the path to the Good Life or is it sprinkling holy water on certain days?

Some Romanians split the difference, so to speak, and so become anxious on two levels, suffering tremendous anxiety over money and acquiring luxury goods as well as being a “good” believer and following the dictates of the church. That’s why you will see Gigi Becali, a man of tremendous wealth and deep connections with the corrupt elite in this country, frantically kissing religious icons over and over before the soccer/football team that he owns plays a game/match. He’s sleazy and corrupt because that’s the path to the Good Life on a material level and superstitiously religious in an effort to adhere to the Good Life as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.

And yet he’s not a happy man, not at all. He isn’t at peace with himself or with his life, no matter how many blessing priests give him or how many millions are stacked up in his bank accounts. And now we come to the heart of the matter, the very motivation behind me writing nearly 1,000 posts on this website, which collectively are all my effort to Redefine the Meaning of the Good Life.

Because most Romanians, even those who are as wealthy and ritually blessed as Gigi Becali, are not happy. No matter how close they get to the theoretical Good Life, it always seems to be just out of reach. Just a few more prayers (I once saw an old lady pray for 8 hours non-stop on a train) or a few more Euros will get you there but it never quite ever seems to be enough.

I truly do have a Good Life here in Romania, and the cats are only part of it. But my life isn’t Good because I have more money than you do or because a church blesses my actions but because I have a different definition of what the Good Life means. If the Good Life means healthy food to eat, clean water to drink, good friends to spend time with, peaceful interactions with animals, a comfortable place to sleep, regular sunshine on my face, appreciating nature, laughing, being honest and unabashedly pursuing the activities that thrill my soul then I have already am living the Good Life.

And I do it here in Romania, not because I am a wizard or am 2 meters tall or uncommonly good looking or because I’m wealthy or because I am American or because I don’t eat meat or because I speak English or because I’m skilled at sports or having magical gifts of understanding animals but only because I have a different definition of what the Good Life is.

This past week here in Romania we’ve had a lot of uncommonly thick fog and I found it thrilling and cool and amazing because appreciating nature is part of my definition of the Good Life. On the other hand, if fog is an impediment to commerce and automobile traffic in your definition, it makes sense why the exact same thing would be a blessing for me and a problem for you.

I can’t convince you to change your definition of what constitutes the Good Life – only you can do it. But these pages on the internet are my humble ode to my personal Good Life here in Romania, one that is accessible to anyone with courage.

Before you embark on any path ask the question, “Does this path have a heart?” If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path.

The trouble is that nobody asks the question. And when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate and leave the path.

A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.

-Juan Matus

Good luck!

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Categorised in: 1000 Reasons Why I Choose Romania, my personal life, People in Romania

6 Responses »

  1. I just love your cultural insight. I know you don’t need anyone to affirm the truth of what you write, but at the same time, I can’t help but comment and say that this is so true! I think this was my favorite line: “Delivering solutions is something that only God and maybe the European Union is expected to do.”

  2. Thank you Sam, very insightful and true as well.

  3. Sadly sometimes there are not hearty paths available and you are left with just the heartless ones. You must do what you must do only because you must do it. There is no desire or joy in it. Such is the way of life and there’s often no way out.

    • The great Lord Denning was of the opinion that codefiid European law was philosophicallyinferior to English common law!He was absolutely right!The immigration problem that the UK wrestles with needs to be dealt with.There’s a lot of the UKIP policy that I support.

  4. integration of Roma into their native corntuiesRoma did not integrate during previous 1,500 years or so. It is not easy to change such a culture.On the other hand, it is absolutely not impossible. The majority of Jewish people pretty well integrated during the last century.

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