Experience troubled countries
I open this note with some personal news: I left Bogota, Colombia this past week and moved to Washington DC after nearly a decade in the Andes (which explains why this post was delayed, sorry). I am thankful for my time in Colombia, not just for experiencing positives like the lovely people, the landscapes, or colonial cities like Cartagena, but for the outright negatives, like crime, poverty, political troubles, staid bureaucracy, terrorist threats, and war. Living in a country struggling with these problems redefined optimism and adversity for me and my family and kept us grounded.
I did not suffer any real hardship in Colombia, but even the well-off are forced to experience things that would be unimaginable for many living in rich countries, certainly for folks in Bethesda, where I now comfortably write this. I grew up in war-torn El Salvador and in many ways Colombia’s troubles seemed familiar. Living in Bogota means becoming more aware of your surroundings when walking down the street because you can get mugged. And guerrilla groups have staged attacks in the capital too. In June 2017 they placed an explosive inside the bathroom of a shopping mall in my neighborhood, killing three people and leaving nine injured. Bomb sniffing dogs are a common sight in some parking lots, and you cannot visit certain parts of the country because armed groups, illegal miners or drug traffickers still run amok.
So where does the optimism come in? Despite these challenges, positive change in countries like these is possible. The firm I work for, Control Risks, has a heat map of Colombia that tells a good story about optimism in war torn countries (see below). The red highlights high security risk areas in Colombia, or places where armed clashes between guerrillas and the military are the norm and where people are killed with relative ease.
The country has recovered from being a near failed state in the early 2000s. Such change requires political will, economic growth opportunities for people, strong institutions, and tough security policies, but it can be done. This picture has largely remained positive since 2017. Yes, a country can devolve or relapse into old, bad habits, but the worst aspects of a nation can be improved even when everything seems hopeless.
Experiencing a country struggling with economic crisis, war, or dysfunctional politics also teaches you what is possible. Until you see people queuing up for toilet paper or some other staple in Cuba or Caracas, such a thing is unimaginable for most people. My father, who had a taste for disaster tourism, took us to Mexico during the devaluation and ensuing debt crisis of 1982-83. Things were cheap for foreigners but you also witnessed what that meant for people trying to live their lives. In El Salvador I was exposed to my share of dysfunction at an early age. Hearing bombs going off at night in the city remains a vivid memory of my childhood, and so is being trapped for days in the home of a close friend when Marxist guerrillas staged a bloody military offensive in the capital in late 1989. Facing these experiences makes it less likely that the rise of a populist, a terrorist attack, or another less urgent challenge takes you by surprise.
By this point you may dismiss me as crazy. Why would anyone take their family to live in or experience a nation struggling with poverty and war, rather than, say, the typical family trip to Disneyland? Aside from the benefits of experiencing a different culture, the answer is simple. It helps keep you grounded. My biggest fear in bringing up kids in an American city or suburb is how sheltered they can become. My kids will never have to experience the sights of violence I saw as a child, and they are partly lucky for that. But living in a rich society may also coddle them a bit too much. Thucydides teaches us that “those who come out on top are those who have been trained in the hardest school.” Exposure to dysfunction helps us develop political and social “street smarts”, and emotional intelligence that are difficult to obtain otherwise. Think of it as a mental callus similar to the ones you can get on your feet due to long distance running. The reality of American suburbia may seem normal to us, but most people on earth could only be so lucky and it’s important to keep that in mind. Colombia has done that and more for me and my family, and for that (and for the good stuff too) I will remain grateful.
What I’m (Re) Reading
The idea that experiencing different forms of adversity can be good for us is the ultimate lesson of the Stoic school founded in Athens back in the 3rd Century BC. A keen student and exponent of this philosophy of life is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who ruled from 161 to 180.
In his Meditations (Random House, 2003), a series of notes to himself that have survived through the ages, he distills crucial lessons about how to manage and experience discomfort and adversity. He counsels: “to hear unwelcome truths” and to learn to “to put up with discomfort and not make demands.” This may be easier said than done, but practice makes it possible eventually. Or as he puts it: “Practice even what seems impossible.” The truth is you can be oblivious to things going on around you no matter where and under what circumstances you live. You need to make an effort to face discomfort to learn new things and come closer to understanding realities different than your own.
But aside from advice on resilience, what most resonates with me about Meditations is the recommendation that we all work or do, at whatever cost, that which gives meaning to our lives. “Love the discipline you know and let it support you,” he says. “People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it.”