It was lunchtime in Rome, and as he does every day, Franco was closing the shop where he restores antique furniture and retouches damaged sculptures and paintings. I was delaying him with my questions.
"You still pay rent, right? You still pay taxes. You still have to eat." I wanted to know why Franco shuttered his shop for the entire month of August, two weeks every December, and—as on that day—for a few hours each afternoon.
A week or two before, I was reading an article that said Italy, my adopted home country, slipped a spot or two on the list of the world's largest economies each August, when the country all but shuts down and most people go to the beach. That had me wondering whether Italians ever questioned their long tradition of enjoying so much down time. But Franco—a pale, gray-haired man in his 60s, with callused hands and glasses with thick, dusty lenses—didn't get my point.
I tried another angle: "Are you good at what you do?"
"Well," I said. "How would you feel about someone who does the same job as you earning more money? Not because he's better at it, but because he lives in a country where people work in August, they work in December, and they don't close the shop every afternoon."
"That's his choice," Franco shrugged.
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"Yes, exactly!" I grew up in the United States, and knew the value of hard work and efficiency. To me, Franco's choices seemed ridiculous. "The other guy makes that choice and so he's more competitive than you, wealthier than you, without being better at his job than you are."
"But I'm not trying to become wealthy," Franco told me after a moment. "I'm trying to have a nice life."
I could have stopped after that answer, but I pressed on. "How nice will your life be when that other man buys you out?" I asked. "He'll be able to afford a lifestyle you can't."
Franco studied my face for a few seconds, then sighed.
"Look, when I finish talking to you, which will be in about two minutes," he said, pulling down the retractable steel grill to cover the glass door to his shop, "when I'm finished talking to you I'll call my wife and tell her to put the pasta in the water because I'm headed home. And when I get there, I'll have a big hot plate of spaghetti waiting for me.
"We'll have lunch, I'll tell her about my day so far, and she'll tell me about hers," he said. "And if I'm lucky—and I'm usually lucky—she'll have a certain look in her eye, and we'll go into the bedroom, and we'll make love. Then we'll take a little nap together. After a while, I'll get up, take a shower, and after I get dressed she'll have a cup of espresso waiting for me. I'll give her a kiss and then walk back to work."
Franco cracked a mischievous smile and asked, "Do you really think I care about being competitive?"
That was years ago. And while I can't say my lifestyle mirrors Franco's in many ways, over time I've become a firm convert to his way of looking at things. I am convinced that measuring success—whether for a person, a company, or a nation—based on crude, short-term grasps for money, power, or influence, is neither sustainable nor wise.
I've lived around half my life in the U.S. and half abroad, mostly in Italy, a country that could fairly be called the European Union's political and economic basket case thanks to a history of unstable and ineffective governments, anemic economic growth, institutionalized corruption, and an impenetrable bureaucracy. Yet each time I travel to the U.S. to see family and friends, I am struck by how irrational American values and priorities have begun to appear compared to those I am accustomed to in Europe.
For example, most of my friends in the U.S. think putting in hours of overtime is normal, and afterward they often continue working at home. They eat bland, unhealthy, mass-produced food packed with hormones, coloring agents, and chemical preservatives. They medicate themselves in order to sleep, and they wash down pharmaceuticals to suppress hypertension, high cholesterol, anxiety, or depression every morning with watery, over-sweetened coffee.
On average, my compatriots in the U.S. have around a third the vacation time of their European counterparts. They have less support if they lose their jobs, much less time off if they become parents, and much, much less of a voice to push for better terms within an American legal system designed to defend the rights of corporations, not individuals. Because of that, access to health care and higher education in the U.S. is increasingly seen as a luxury that will inevitably leave millions saddled in debt.
Social mobility in the U.S—the American dream, the notion of moving up the economic ladder through hard work and grit—has been dropping steadily for more than 50 years and is now lower than in traditionally class-based European societies, owing mostly to the expanding gap between America's richest and its poorest citizens, and the public resources available to each. Compared to Europe, access to cultural activities in America is more limited and more expensive. Because of the country's ineffective emphasis on abstinence as the preferred form of birth control, Americans have a greater chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, and a woman in the U.S. is far more likely than in Europe to become pregnant before her 18th birthday.
A child born in Western Europe this year will live more than two years longer than a child born in the U.S., will be in good health five or six years later into life, and will enjoy a more comfortable retirement relative to his or her lifestyle while working.
But there's one trend that bothers me more than all the others, and this is it: Most of the Americans I talk to don't seem to recognize these glaring disparities, or, if they do, they're not concerned.
I blame American Exceptionalism.
The idea that the U.S. is unique among nations has been around for a long time. It dates at least to 1835, when French historian and author Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of Democracy in America. In the book, he marveled at the young country's fortunate circumstances: vast territory, abundant natural resources, and a spirit born from having freed itself from colonial masters. He wrote that the country had a strong enough connection to Europe to reap the benefits of "civilization" without being crippled by the consequences of Europe's schismatic history.
Somewhere along the line, though, the idea of American Exceptionalism evolved into a conviction that the U.S. as a country had little to learn from the rest of the world. That is why the word "nationalism" is much more positive in the U.S. than in Europe, where the word still reminds people of their continent's periodic flirtations with authoritarianism. That idea of exceptionalism is contained in the resurgently popular "America First" slogan, and the fact that fewer than two in five Americans have ever traveled abroad. It is why international news is usually an afterthought for most U.S. media, and why American politicians so often reduce foreign policy to a simple us-against-them calculus.
Contrary to what this essay might suggest, I consider myself a patriotic American. The country of my birth helped win two World Wars and foot the bill for the reconstruction of Europe after the second of them. Europe continues to benefit from the protection of the American military, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. U.S. industry has been a laboratory of innovation for more than a century. And nearly 50 years after Neil Armstrong, there are only 12 people who have ever set foot on the surface of the moon—all of them Americans.
I am proud that, in per-capita terms, the U.S. is easily the richest big country on the planet, achieving that status via the world's most complex and diversified economy and a population that is a true melting pot of cultures, races, and religions, often including groups turned away elsewhere.
But it also seems apparent that my country is losing its way. Even as its politics become more polarized and public discourse unrecognizably muddied, the country is, in many ways, more self-assured than ever. The result is a nation ignorant of many lessons, including those of the past, which should teach us that a period of intense hubris, of looking inward, is the penultimate chapter in the histories of almost all the great civilizations.
But maybe it is also part of a process.
By my count, the Italian peninsula is the only part of the globe to have been home to the world's dominant civilization on two separate occasions—at the height of the Roman Empire, and then again during the Renaissance. That also means it has fallen twice from that perch, something that no doubt alters cultural perspectives and gives rise to different priorities. It's a long, meandering road and it's full of detours, hairpin turns, and potholes. But the years I've spent living in a culture that has traversed it makes me confident it is worth the effort.