Can Values be Physical?
There’s a gull screeching—he seems more angry than mournful. A noisy flock of sparrows swoops onto the empty restaurant deck below, hunting for crumbs left behind by yesterday’s diners. My daily walk includes magpies and herons and I think a couple of cormorants. In spite of spending two years working on a natural history cruise ship, my birding skills are seriously lacking. I see binoculars and a bird book in my future. If you’re a birder, you will love The Algarve.
If you’re not a birder, you will probably still love The Algarve. It seems to have something for everyone without even trying. Outstanding beaches, boating and fishing, biking, hiking, camping, and golf. There’s upscale and laid back, city and country. Exceptional food and wines. Fabulous weather nine months out of the year, and the other three are fairly mild. In many ways, it seems the perfect backdrop for a place to live, work, retire.
But some expats don’t stick. Maybe they were the partner who came along willingly, but unenthusiastically. Maybe they truly are nomads with itchy feet and a whole world to check out before they check out. I know family is a big reason why people are pulled back to their original countries. They are happy here but someone needs them or they just miss their friends and family too much. (Yes, we will try to talk you into joining us over here.)
And, for some, the change is just too hard. In a different country, in a different culture, everything you do has to be relearned. The phones are different. The products in the grocery stores are different. (Internet/cable TV companies suck everywhere. So there’s that.) Banking is different. You look for the things you know, the familiar things you can count on. (I bought a lot of Oreos and M&Ms my first few months here.) You don’t know what people are saying to you. Immersion does not equal osmosis.
People are social animals. (Even introverts.) The expats we meet in our new countries become our lifelines, our new guides. They are the people you can ask the “stupid” questions to or who will laugh with you over your gaffes. They have had those questions; they have made mistakes, too.
What I see happening, even with me (introvert extraordinaire), is a natural inclination to help someone who is struggling with the same things you have struggled with. It’s not even a matter of being “ahead” of someone in years abroad; it’s having been through the process, any process. While I still can’t speak Portuguese, I can recommend an affordable website that is excellent. (Apparently learning a language is like working out—you have to actually show up and do the work. Sigh.) I don’t know what all the choices are on the ATM screen, but I can tell people which machines to avoid and how to get money out. The person I help with that might turn around and tell me where to find confectioner’s sugar or how to navigate changing over my driver’s license.
I think what bonds the expat communities, online and off, is the commonality that we all chose this life and the knowledge that we’re all in this together. And so we help each other out.
Immigrant communities in all countries do this. Looking back at the US from the perspective of 4,000 miles and a year’s time, I realize that the willingness to help someone out—neighbor or stranger—has diminished. The US was once a place of infinite possibilities. There was room for everyone to succeed and therefore, helping each other out didn’t take anything away from our likelihood of success. We expanded across the vast new country until we found an ocean. No problem. Just look up. Still plenty of room. We built up into the sky. The sky’s the limit.
And we seemed to have hit that limit. Three dimensions. The US was full. No more room at the inn. People got territorial. (I mean really, it was always about gaining territory. It was just easier to be gracious when you were pretty sure you would get your share.) We were no longer all in this together. The American dream became a zero-sum game. If you get ahead, I fall behind. If you win, I lose.
So it became dangerous to help out the next person. If you shared something, you had less. Everyone is worried about getting their piece of the pie. No one talks about making more pie.
Too many people stop at three dimensions. A few more stop at the fourth dimension of time. String theory posits ten dimensions. I think Dr. Who posits more (Buckaroo Banzai surely does), but my knowledge of quantum anything is close to non-existent.
But I do wonder and speculate about things, as people have done long before me. We have physical dimensions. We have mental dimensions. We create worlds within our imaginations. And some of us can take the worlds of our imaginations and bring them into the physical world—artists, architects, engineers, musicians. That’s extraordinary if you think about it. But we don’t.
So today I am thinking about kindness as a dimension of personality and imagination. I think about the physical ripples that an act of kindness creates. You help me. I am perhaps more inclined to help the next person because of that. Paying it forward on down the line. So it ripples out, but I think it also creates a connecting line between each person (you can use string if you want) that weaves in and out like a spider web, creating a network that grows stronger with each act of kindness. We become part of that network of kindness, part of the matrix. I wonder what kind of physical world we can build if we recognize things like kindness as a dimension with infinite possibilities much as we once imagined the American continent as a place of infinite possibility.
Kindness is defined as a value, a personality trait, a quality, a virtue. It’s not something that you can hold in your hand, but it is something that has held your hand. Things don’t have to be physical to be real. Kindness applied can bring physical results.
Thinking of life as a zero-sum game ignores the possibility of unseen dimensions. We don’t live in a three-dimensional world. Einstein established time as the fourth dimension. String theory gives us six more. Why not consider the infinite possibilities of applied kindness?