Cuenca offers the family and community values that have been mostly abandoned in North America
Ezra Klein, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, recently noted that among the most profound sociological changes that North Americans have experienced in the last 30 years is the catastrophic increase in loneliness.
An October 2020 survey conducted by Harvard University revealed that 36% of middle-aged Americans reported feeling lonely “frequently.” The number of Americans ages 18 to 25 reporting frequent episodes of extended loneliness was a staggering 61%.
Scholars have identified several significant factors responsible for this societal collapse. Foremost is the link between loneliness and obsessive social media use, which greatly reduces the frequency of more rewarding, in-person interactions. Another is the debilitating sense of failure one experiences when left behind financially; despair and loneliness are endemic. The disparity of an escalating real estate market surging against stagnant income is causing rising levels of homelessness, desperation, isolation, and loneliness on a scale that is nearly beyond belief.
However, there is yet another cause of loneliness: Education.
A majority of non-college-educated two-parent families in the US are separated by less than 27 miles from a parent. 80% live less than a three-hour drive away. Of course, these numbers decline precipitously when measured against one’s level of education. For obvious reasons, people with a college or post-graduate degree can position themselves for better employment opportunities by moving to cities with businesses matching their training, wherever these hubs are located — be it in another state or a different country.
Chasing jobs by seeking promotion regardless of location has become a well-trodden path where it is taken for granted that old friendships will be discarded and family ties severed.
Ignoring the dangers of separation anxiety has become embedded in the American Dream. The celebrated depiction of a lethally armed High Plains Drifter murdering those who offend him before riding off, alone, into the sunset is somehow confused with being a courageous pilgrim rather than a dangerous and deranged interloper.
Another oddity touted by North Americans is portraying the headlong pursuit of physical loneliness as a measure of accomplishment. Acquiring large parcels of “private property,” be it a sprawling lawn or a slew of undeveloped acreage, is often judged as the highest manifestation of success. In reality, self-imposed isolation often upstages investing in relationships with neighbors or aligning oneself within the local community. The prestige of perching on the far outskirts of the city or in a gated (see caged) community, away from close friends and next-door neighbors supersedes having friends or neighbors.
There is little to wonder about why these people are forlorn and lonely.
When I moved to Cuenca, I was relieved to note that some of the most tragic bad habits griping Anytown, North America, simply do not exist in Ecuador.
I was struck by the number of neighborhood streets with multiple adjacent homes sheltering an extended multi-generational clan. I was familiar with the centuries-old tradition of building houses cheek-to-jowl; still, I overlooked the vital tradition — and importance — of accommodating multiple generations in such an intimate way.
Accepting the imperative of family ties rather than the notion of individual preference as “a right” is a major distinction between the North American and Latin American cultures. So is the cultural imperative of accommodation. Cuencano families are often mandated to patiently allow second, third, or more chances for their wayward members because forgiving and maintaining solidarity is a founding principle of the societal structure. Standards determined to be best for the community at large prevail.
Perhaps the most cited nugget of advice given to college-bound Yankees is: “Make the most of it; these will be the best years of your life.” But what are the hallmarks that made this moment in our lives so influential and fulfilling?
Most folks I knew in my 20s lived in student housing where successful communal living meant learning to get along with others in close quarters. Accommodating the array of opinions championed was critical, as was the importance of hanging out and being among friends; it was a major feature of collegiate life. Although communal housing often included adjusting to a less-than-pristine environment – floors needing a good scrubbing, a fire hose needed to muck out the bathroom — the structure required for successfully living among a motley collection of folks propelled us toward adulthood with greater wisdom, acceptance, and sense of shared purpose. What one lost in degrees of selfishness was replaced by investment in lifelong relationships and education.
We learned that tolerance, engagement, and trusting folks with their own bodies are essential standards for a community to remain intact and to prevail.
These lessons are readily available in Ecuador.
We are very fortunate to live in Ecuador, a country that enshrined in the Constitution a promise to: “Respect all dimensions of society and the dignity of all people, to recognize age-old roots wrought by women and men from various peoples, to celebrate nature — Pacha Mama — of which we are a part and which is vital to our existence, to invoke the name of God and recognize our diverse forms of religion and spirituality, and to call upon the wisdom of all cultures to enrich us as a society, and as heirs to social liberation against all forms of domination and colonialism, with a profound commitment to the present and future.”
Chaotic times such as these require the discipline to keep a clear-eyed focus on the future and unyielding respect for the past. Fortunately, we have a home in Ecuador, where deep faith in tradition and an eagerness to engage the unknown is championed.
The stately colonial buildings housing cafes, galleries, and fine restaurants, the cobblestone streets that require us to be careful, and the ever-present clouds keeping time to the seasons offer us a nearly endless variety of subjects to engage others and interest a small circle of friends.
Awareness of our good fortune and enthusiasm for supportive friendships are always in fashion here. If we prune unneeded desires and nourish limitless dreams, we will find a balance that is satisfactory to all.
There is no good reason to remain lonely. You are among friends.