I laid in a hammock on the ocean’s edge, on a perfect night. The lack of air pollution on this remote island south of Cambodia allowed for a pristine celestial palette to meet my eyes. I playfully kicked and watched as the bright blue bioluminescent plankton lit up the tepid, dark water, like I was casting a spell from my foot. “Stars above, stars below,” an affable Israeli girl I met here would say. Though I had seen many stunning landscapes all over the world, none rivaled this. As the natural world that I fervently fawn over flaunted her transcendent beauty before me, all I could feel was alone.
In a chapter from his riveting book Sapiens, historian Yuval Harari discusses the increasing role of the market and state in our lives. For millions of years, Homo sapiens depended on the family and local community to have their needs met. Even when kingdoms and empires emerged, limitations on communication and transportation meant that a person’s life revolved primarily around their local community.
Then came the Industrial Revolution, and with it new means of communication and transportation, which the Market and State used to embolden individuals. The Market and State could now provide nearly everything the family and community could — and more, such as food, shelter, security, banking, education, employment, insurance, healthcare, and protection. Individuals, no longer forced to follow in their family and community’s footsteps, were freer to shape their own lives than ever before. The Market and State were the new heads of the family.
The market is the new head of the family, in more ways than one | Source: Nationaal Archief/Flickr
Home videos taken by my parents suggest that I’ve always had a proclivity for individualism. The most comical demonstration of this can be seen in my 12-month-old self’s refusal to allow my parents to feed me despite my inability to operate a spoon, resulting in SpaghettiOs® going everywhere but my mouth. Stark differences between myself and my family and community likely bolstered my individual streak. But my family lived modestly in a small town, so the opportunities for an individual were relatively limited.
“Don’t stay in this small town, see the world!” the Market cried. “You don’t need anyone else, I can take care of you,” cooed the State.
Source: Silence Bestill
This changed quickly when I found online poker in high school. My whole life, I loved games and competition, but when I came across online poker, I fell like never before. It was the perfect amalgamation of three of my greatest joys — competition, people, and math. I started reading poker books in the back of class, staying up all night playing tournaments, and participating in online forums with others also trying to learn the game.
The fact that I could potentially make money playing poker was subsidiary to my love for it. Money was merely the way one kept score in this game. As I started my final year of high school — a year after being introduced to online poker — my score had gone from $20 to over $50,000.
Though I wasn’t in it for the money, the more I made, the louder and more seductive the call of the Market and State became. “Don’t stay in this small town, see the world!” the Market cried. “You don’t need anyone else, I can take care of you,” cooed the State.
I moved away for college, where the Market and State’s attempts to supplant my family and community continued. I felt more attached to my college friends and the poker community than to my community at home. I hardly talk to my family or old friends anymore. Though I was increasingly thriving at poker, each new accomplishment was accompanied by an increasing sense of emptiness.
“Well then eat fancier food! Buy nicer things! Consume, consume, consume!” the Market beckoned. It did not take long for me to learn that this promise was farcical. I had seen peers who had also stumbled upon unexpected riches indulge in this promise of the Market, to no avail, and I never cared much for material possessions. I knew that consumption was the cornerstone of the rat race that poker was going to pluck me out of.
What I didn’t recognize was that while I wasn’t participating in the prototypical rat race, I was in a rat race nonetheless — with only a slight modification. Its rules were, “Work harder! Earn more money! Play bigger games! Keep going!”
Individuals, no longer forced to follow in their family and community’s footsteps, were freer to shape their own lives than ever before. The Market and State were the new heads of the family.
When I graduated from college, this picture began to become clearer to me. I knew I needed to look elsewhere for happiness and fulfillment. Most of my friends from college have moved away and were working full-time jobs. My relationships from home have fizzled. I felt disconnected from my family. My increasingly turbulent relationship with poker deterred me from deepening friendships in the poker community. “Mother State, Father Market, what else ya got for me?”
There are poker tournaments all over the world, year-round. While in school I could only attend them sparingly, but once I graduated I had the time and means to travel anywhere in the world I desired. For four years, I spent half of my time in a partially-furnished apartment reading books and playing online poker while everyone around me worked normal jobs, and the other half traveling around the world, playing poker, volunteering, sight-seeing, and visiting friends. I rarely stayed in one place for longer than six weeks. I was everywhere and nowhere.
The nomad life was wonderful for a while. Myriad blogs and magazines extolling the virtues of traveling exist for a reason. Many experiences I had on the road were truly invaluable. But after a certain point, it became unhealthy; I felt like I was running, though from what I wasn’t sure. I was seeing new sights, meeting new people, trying new foods, doing new things, but my experiences started to feel redundant and vapid. The highlights of my trips were always centered around the connection I had with the people I was with, as opposed to anything intrinsic to the location or experience. The more I traveled, the more it became apparent to me that what I really wanted was not to see more sights, but to cultivate better relationships.
Life Mountain | Source: © Wait But Why
Tier 3 Friends are the ones that you may occasionally grab a drink with, but otherwise, your relationship mostly consists of occasional Facebook likes. Tier 2 Friends are people whose company you always enjoy but you only hang out with every month or so if you’re in the same city. Tier 1 Friends are the ones that feel like family. “These are the people,” Urban writes, “closest to you, those you call first when something important happens, those you love even when they suck, who make speeches at your wedding, whose best and worst sides you know through and through, and whose relationship with you is eternal — even if you go months or years without hanging out, nothing has changed when you find yourself together again.”
Walled-Off Wally | Source: © Wait But Why
Establishing and maintaining Tier 1 relationships take a lot of work. Work that I was not doing with anyone that had been a Tier 1 friend to me. And when you don’t stay in one place for longer than six weeks, it’s pretty much impossible to build a new Tier 1 relationship. So, after four years of travel and individualism, I found my “life mountain” mirroring that of what Urban calls “Walled-Off Wally.”
Following the Market and State’s becks and calls, I found myself with tons of Tier 3 relationships, a slew of Tier 2 relationships and no Tier 1 relationships. Which was problematic, because, as Urban puts, healthy Tier 1 relationships (familial, platonic, and romantic) “don’t just make us happy — they’re the thing that makes us happy.”
The more I traveled, the more it became apparent to me that what I really wanted was not to see more sights, but to cultivate better relationships.
To be fair, the Market and State aren’t solely to blame. It’s unlikely one could find themselves in such a position without some intimacy issues. But the Market and State are enablers, with their ubiquitous and hollow promises to find fulfillment through their guidance. Having financial success at an early age gave me the means to run to the next shiny thing the Market and State had to offer anytime things got difficult. I was now suffering for it, as it is only by undergoing those difficult processes that one finds growth and meaning. I had many friendships, yet no Tier 1 relationships. I had seen many places, yet really known nowhere. The Market and State had provided me with a surplus of breadth, and a scarcity of depth.
The expansion of the Market and State has done so many incredible things for our world that it seems silly to begin to list them. But not only have they failed to meet our emotional needs, they have deceived us into thinking they can, leading us astray from the sources that have met our species’ emotional needs for millions of years — the family and community.
For me, establishing roots is about recognizing the limits of the Market and State and silencing these false calls. It’s about not running from difficulties, but appreciating their necessity. It’s about exploring depth over breadth, and building the Tier 1 relationships that make life worth living.
For the foreseeable future, my family and friends won’t wonder where I am. I won’t be living out of a suitcase, constantly forgetting what time zone I’m in. I won’t succumb to the temptation to flee when life gets messy, as it does. Hell, I may even get a dog.