On Monday I made a bittersweet departure from Greece. It’s hard to believe that a whole month has gone by, and toward the end of my stay it felt like not nearly enough time. Besides hitting all the usual well-worn spots (The Acropolis, etc.), it was an intriguing experience getting to know the everyday side of Athens. Hopping on the metro, shopping for groceries, settling in to work, breaking for coffee in the afternoon, making dinner--all events held in common with most Westerners, yet marked with unique, subtle differences in each country.
These subtle differences, I found, were indicative of much broader, deep-seated tenets. Whether these tenets are inherent to the Greek people, to European cultures, or perhaps to human beings in general, I can’t say. What I do know is that my time in Greece was a major wake-up call, shining light on the behaviors, attitudes, and thought patterns toward life, money, work, and relationships that were the foundation of growing up in American culture.
In adventures of the body, mind, or heart, it is paramount to survey one’s experiences and cull together the lessons learned, assimilating a new, deep, non-academic education. Without this, experiences such as travel are just masturbation. The philosopher Alan Watts gives an example of one person saying to another, “I have just gone on an amazing journey!” The listener responds by saying, “Prove it. What have you brought back with you?”
These are just a few of the things I brought back with me from Greece.
1. Being instead of doing.
In his series of lectures, Customs of the World, Professor David Livermore, advisor on cultural intelligence to Fortune 500 CEOs and government officials, highlights the difference between “doing” cultures and “being” cultures. While all cultures are a mix of both sides, most tend to lean in one direction or the other.
“Doing” cultures highly prioritize productivity, action, career, and earning status through work. Personal identity is very much connected to what you do for a living. America and Japan are great examples of “doing” cultures. In the US, generally one of the first questions you ask someone you just met is, “So, what do you do?”
“Being” cultures, on the other hand, value personal relationships, family, flexible schedules, and unstructured time. Countries like Mexico and Greece are very heavily “being” cultures. My fellow American readers can imagine my surprise when a Greek man, instead of asking me what I did for a living, asked me, “What kind of person are you?”
I had no idea what to say! My very doing-oriented psyche wanted to rattle off a list of all the things that I did for a living, but I knew that wouldn’t be the correct answer to such a question. To be totally honest, I’m still not entirely sure how to respond. My American psyche is having a very hard time coming up with non-task-oriented adjectives to describe myself.
Finding myself in the middle of a “being” culture meant I had to slow. the fuck. down. I woke up early but got out the door late. I took the time to really take care of myself--cooking more frequently even though it was less convenient than grabbing something off the street, taking frequent breaks while working, making sure I got enough sleep at night. My inner “doing”-culture-American frequently squirmed to find something productive to do during my moments of downtime, but I strove to align myself with the Greek concept of χαλαρά (ha-la-RA), translated as “loose” or “relaxed”. Relaxed schedule, relaxed body, relaxed mind.
If this sounds totally lazy to you, join the club. The irony is that my month in Greece saw me being more productive than I ever had been living in Los Angeles. I wrote more frequently, consistently completed my daily to-do lists, made progress every day on building Multiamory, and had great phone sessions with my coaching clients. And on top of that I had time to do yoga, explore the city, and go on dates. I attribute it to the shift in cultural paradigm, but I have yet to rule out Greece being a part of some wrinkle in the space-time continuum where the laws of relativity, time, and scheduling conflicts are turned on their heads.
I found myself thinking a lot about my relationships in the light of “being” vs. “doing”. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about polyamory is that it allows each relationship to find its own level and to develop organically. What this means is that it takes the pressure off for every relationship to develop into boyfriend/girlfriend-marriage-kids-'til-death-do-you-part. It also prevents you from having to force relationships to stay at nothing-serious-just-friends-with-benefits-no-strings-attached.
I’ve been guilty of doing both, even in my open relationships. I’ve gotten frustrated when a relationship wasn’t turning into a deep, intimate romance fast enough. I’ve chosen to keep budding love at arm’s length, either because I didn’t want to be vulnerable or because one of my partners was threatened by it. I’ve sweat and strained and manipulated myself and others in an attempt to produce relationships that were what I wanted them to be, instead of what they inherently were. And the times that I’ve done this--the times that I’ve worked so hard to figure out what I had to do in order to have happy relationships--it’s blown up in my face, almost without fail. When I’ve let go a little bit and let myself and others just be (a surprisingly terrifying thing to do), my relationships were naturally much more peaceful and happy.
2. Give even when you don’t feel like it.
In case you haven’t been following the news, the Greek economy is a mess right now. Bailouts, loan extensions, and austerity packages have failed to revive the economy and have angered much of the public in the process. There’s also a 25% unemployment rate and rumors of a “Grexit” from the Eurozone, which is not nearly as fun as it sounds. In a nutshell, few people in Greece have a lot of money to spare.
And yet, I constantly found myself the beneficiary of generosity. From my Couchsurfing host in Thessaloniki who insisted on not only putting me up for free, but also cooking for me at every opportunity, to the little old woman on the train who didn’t speak a word of English, but shared her food with me on the 5-hour journey and gave me adorable, loving pats as she disembarked. Xenia is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, and it is still alive and well. Everyone assured me that it is imperative to have food for guests, and you must be generous with all you have, even if you’re poor. Although, some Greeks were apt to point out that Greece’s treatment of Syrian refugees has been, at times, misaligned with this cultural value.
However, this openhandedness that seemed inherent in everyone I met made me examine my own generosity, both material and interpersonal. Everyone is well aware that relationships are a give-and-take. The “give” part tends to be a lot more difficult for us than the “take” part. Relationships require you to give your time, your attention, your care, your patience, and on and on and on. Loving someone and nurturing a lasting connection with that person necessitates a constant giving, ideally with those same things being given back in return.
But we aren’t always the best at keeping things tit-for-tat in our relationships. You make dinner for your girlfriend and she forgets to thank you. Or your boyfriend wants to vent about what happened at work, but you want nothing more than to fall asleep watching Netflix. I’ve frequently gotten frustrated having to give a listening ear to a partner who is still going through the pain of an old breakup. I’ve come home from a shitty day and had no desire to express an ounce of compersion or support to my partner who just got back from an exciting first date.
But Franklin Veaux’s advice comes to mind. To reach for the deepest, most compassionate version of yourself. Looking at it in the light of my experiences in Greece, this means giving even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you don’t think you can afford it. Even when you don’t think you have the emotional endurance or mental patience.
Give yourself anyway.
But isn’t that a one-way ticket to Doormat Town? (The most depressing town ever.) Of course it’s still important to have personal boundaries and to know what your limits are. Giving too much without receiving enough back is the foundation for most abusive relationships. But outside the circumstances of abuse, our deepest, most intimate connections require us to continue giving, sometimes emotionally extending ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of.
I’ve re-dedicated myself to giving in my relationships, not to get something in return, not to feel good about myself, and not to manipulate. Giving myself because that’s just the way to do it.
I also am taking a cue from the old woman on the train--I’mma start givin’ out more loving pats.
3. Smile in the face of loss.
I took a train up to Northern Greece and stayed in Thessaloniki for a few days. Thanks to Couchsurfing.com, I found an amazing host willing to let me stay in his spare room for free. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call him Nikos. That’s about as anonymous as you can get, because I’m pretty sure 90% of the male population in Greece is named Nikos.
Nikos became an instant friend. He constantly had a smile on his face and was quick to laugh at everything, including himself. We had a wild time seeing the sites of Thessaloniki, blasting rock ballads on the car radio, and shouting insults at other drivers in traffic. Turns out that the Greek word for “asshole” -- μαλάκα (ma-LA-ka) -- rhymes perfectly with the Japanese word for “stupid” -- ばか (ba-ka). Many stupid assholes blocking the roadway were subject to our multi-lingual ire. Baka malaka!!!
I was surprised to learn that a few years back, Nikos’s father had passed away--something that he and I held in common. He shared with me that he spent a lot of time coping with extreme anger and aggression after his father’s death, which I could not have guessed in a million years. He seemed to be the most carefree person I’d ever met. But he told me something that has been bouncing around in my brain ever since:
“I tell whoever I meet who has lost someone, ‘It hurts right now, but a year from now, you will smile.’ Now, when I dream about my dad, I smile. When I think about him, I smile.”
I immediately thought of lost relationships. Thinking of ended relationships and dreaming about exes wasn’t exactly bringing smiles to my face. It was quite the opposite. But how different to think about how I would feel down the road, to envision the possibility of being at peace and being able to enjoy the relationship for what it had been, instead of hurting from the loss of it.
In mentally teleporting myself to that future, it suddenly and viscerally became present. On the drive back from the beach outside Thessaloniki, with the windows down and Bob Marley on the stereo, I experienced the most overwhelming sense of gratitude and joy for the relationships that were no longer. It was sad, having to experience an ending, but what a blast to have had the relationship at all. How lucky I was to have gotten to love such amazing people, even if it was just briefly.
And miraculously, I thought about loss, and I could smile at the same time.