This afternoon, when I visited the Erawan Museum near Bangkok, my friend Pin encouraged me to perform various Buddhist rituals with him in front of the massive three-headed elephant mounted on top of the museum building. Eh, I thought, ignoring the fact that I, well, don't believe in anything remotely related to religion. Why the hell not?
After we chanted in Thai for several minutes and placed the marigold garlands we'd been holding onto some sort of non-Catholic collection plate, Pin handed me a wooden cylinder, which contained a couple dozen or so flat, wooden sticks.
"Hold this with both hands," he said, and passed me the cylinder, "then shake it hard until one of the sticks falls out. Then, go over there," he pointed to a set of numbered drawers, "and pick a piece of paper from the door with the same number as the stick. That's your fortune."
"Oh Jesus...er, Buddha," I sighed as I got to shakin'. It was far more difficult than I expected! The first time, two sticks came out at the same moment; the second time all of them exited at once. The third time was indeed the charm -- except it wasn't.
You will not find what you are seeking now, the fortune forebodingly read. There is no love in your immediate future.
I gulped -- both of my greatest fears, as a long-term traveler!
"You will have a baby girl. "Glory be," I laughed -- having children is definitely not a fear of mine. "I'm not doomed!"
As we put our shoes back on and prepared to ascend into the giant elephant's trunk, I wondered, for split second, if any of the parts of my fortune that didn't involve procreating might be true. But only for a split second. Are you kidding, Robert? Snap out of it!
At the same time, I received a notification on my phone about the presidential debates in the United State which, on account of the 12-hour time difference, had only recently ended.
And I made a startling connection. Feeling personally blessed or damned as the result of an outcome over which you have close to zero control isn't an affliction mindset exclusively reserved for the God-fearing -- it also affects Americans! Allow to me explain.
I've spent a majority of the past three years abroad, whether living or traveling, which has given me a broader, more objective perspective on the state of U.S. politics, and the U.S. in general.
And what has struck me most about my fellow countrymen is the extent to which Americans (on both sides of the aisle) believe that the outcome of a given election will, for better or for worse, change their lives and the country in ways beyond their control.
Yet, every time I return to the United States, even following months-long periods of travel, absolutely eff-all has changed:
- The transportation infrastructure continues to crumble; the country continues to involve itself in the affairs of foreign (and, particularly, Middle Eastern) countries to spite aggressive nations (and, particularly, Iran).
- The largely rhetorical battle over a healthcare bill that, let's be honest, nobody really likes (but will probably go into full effect regardless) continues to rage.
- Ideologues continue to miss the obvious connection between the broken education system and lament the movements of jobs offshore: Regardless of where the funding comes from or how much of it pays teachers, we can't possible expect the workforce our fit-into-these-boxes school system has produced to create jobs to replace the ones that inevitably leave our shores when cheaper labor is available elsewhere.
- Nonsensical disputes about the semantics of one-off-statement either candidate makes continue to take precedence over the real issue.
And the real issue is that neither major party candidate, as hood ornaments of major parties that will likely only stay major if the existing power structure is kept in place, want to shake things up as much as they need to be shaken up for America to remain the great nation it has been for much of the last century.
This is not to say the truly good fights -- such as campaign finance reform and legislation to audit the Federal Reserve -- are not worth fighting. But it is to say that regardless of the outcome of the election in a couple weeks, the larger "American way" is going to remain basically unchanged.
Gas prices will probably remain high; so will healthcare costs, even if more people have insurance coverage to help pay for them. America will probably continue putting its proverbial nose where it doesn't belong; for this and many other reasons, our deficit will most certainly continue to rise, and the purchasing power of our currency will continue to fall.
Just as rational people cannot allow text written on a randomly-selected sheet of paper to influence their choices, actions and the course their life takes, neither can -- or should -- we concede our destinies to the winner of a race who, for approximately half of us, will not be the person we chose.
The true question is not about who is going to win or what will "happen" when the winner takes office. It's about what you are going to do to, regardless of our nation's fortune, to make sure you remain as happy, healthy and self-sufficient as possible.
(Tip: Traveling is a very good option.)