In 2006 my husband (who was then my boyfriend) got the opportunity to travel to Switzerland for work and he asked me to go with him. It was my first trip to Europe. After we arrived, we took a little nap and woke up around 7 or 8 pm. I was hungry and searched for a vending machine. I found nothing and then went to the front desk. The concierge laughed when I asked about the vending machines. “You Americans.” He said. “We don’t have machines with old food in them.” I asked if there was a convenience store nearby and he laughed again. “No. We aren’t like you. We don’t have everything 24/7. We end our day at 5 o’clock. We do not go, go, go all of the time. What is it you were looking to find in a vending machine?” I told him I was hoping to find some chocolate, and he said, “Well, you are in Switzerland.” And with a smile produced two handfuls of chocolates for me from under the desk. His tone wasn’t one of condensation, but one almost of pity. And now I understand why.
The ten days I spent in Switzerland are still some of the best days of my life. He wasn’t kidding. Everything closed at 5. With the exception of some bars and a few restaurants, the city essentially shut down. And the people stayed home and relaxed with their families. Or they took to the streets. I remember one wonderful evening where we sat on the steps of a museum with many other people who had brought picnics, or were just talking or playing games. It was so relaxing and fun.
One night we found a little restaurant with only about 8 tables. We were expected to dine with the other people there. We were the highlight of their evening. No one spoke English, only German, and so the woman sitting at our table did charades to help us understand what was on the menu. That meal lasted 5 hours. We simply sat and relaxed and ate. The restaurant was in the downstairs of the owner’s home. We were served course after course while we smoked cigarettes and sipped wine and found ways to communicate with the other patrons.
Another thing I noticed is that they took their dogs everywhere. If they owned a shop, the dog was there all day. Dogs were in stores, on public transport and in bars, relaxing under the tables. And the news was so different there as well. While we were there, a man here in the U.S. went into an Amish schoolhouse and shot 8 girls, killing 5, and then shot himself. It was briefly on the news there, and then they were on to reporting other things. I kid you not, the big stories on their news channel were a debate about which is better, black tea or green tea, and a great story on composting, where they interviewed a family about how they compost. I’m serious.
Imagine living in a place like that. Where the news is informative and helpful, and not focused 24/7 on scaring the ever-loving shit out of you. We get moment-to-moment updates on every horror don’t we? Even when the news stations are only speculating or reporting what they think is going on, only to change the story later once they have actual information. They want to be first, and they don’t care if they are right.
We have a failing mental health system. A society in which we are led to believe that we are broken if we aren’t perfect. We live in constant competition. Feeling the need to be as beautiful, as intelligent, as successful as everyone else. We’re in a constant race. And we’re never winning because there’s always more to obtain. We work long hours. We work different shifts. Our children are bringing home tons of homework. They are in several extra-curricular activities at one time. Each day is a struggle to get through. The stress, the pressure, the frustration…never stops. There’s never a break.
I haven’t been shy about sharing the fact that I am on an anti-anxiety medication. What might shock you is to know that I have 6 best friends and 4 of them also take anti-anxiety medication. And a 5th is asking her doctor about getting on something. We have so much stress we don’t know how to manage it, and even if we did, we don’t have time to.
Society needs to change. The acts of horror being committed, the number of suicides, the divorce statistics, the number of children in foster care, the mentally ill without access to help…it’s all a syndrome of a society that has lost some core values: self care, relaxation, enjoyment. The list can go on.
So what do we do? Well, it’s hard to control the outside world. So all we can do is try to control our own. The first thing I do is set limits. My anxiety recently spiraled out of control and my doctor made me realize that I never take a break from my kids, or for myself. So now, once the kids are in bed, I do whatever I want to. I used to clean, but now I watch TV, do my nails, read, or take a bubble bath. I practice self care. I also ensure that my husband and I go out at least twice a month without our children. That time is just for us to relax and enjoy one another. I also limit my kids’ extra curricular activities. They are allowed only one thing at a time. And if they overlap, it’s a no. I have family members who never attend family functions because their kids have games/practices/recitals all the time. They are so entrenched in that world that they don’t even make exception for family events. To me, that is an issue because it’s another example of moving us away from our roots, our core.
Don’t misunderstand, I see the value in extra curricular activities. The life lessons our children learn are invaluable. But I believe that those lessons can be learned without being in 6 things at a time. It’s important for our children to have down time as well, and not only on breaks. They are developing and need time to be creative without structure. To be with friends. To relax and figure out what they like and who they are.
The last, and perhaps most important thing that I do, is turn off the news. It’s not helpful. It’s a horror show filled with scare tactics and misinformation. That doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on or keep up on current events, but I find ways to keep up that don’t involve mass hysteria. And I think it’s important that we continue to stress these ideals. To slow down and not contribute to the mess. To show that we want a new way, a different world to raise our children in, where we aren’t terrified to let them walk outside and where we aren’t pulled in so many directions that we lose focus on what is truly important: being happy, enjoying life, and making the world a better place for all of us.