When I used to have to park my car in the street, I collected parking tickets by the boatload. They were cheap at the time – $15 or so, as I recall – but I’d let them fester, with notice after notice increasing the cost as I let them sit. Eventually, my license would get suspended, a thing that caused me untold anxiety. You see, to get my license unsuspended, I had to a) pay the tickets, which by that point were a lot more expensive than they’d started, and b) go to the main Department of Motor Vehicles office in my area, which I could only get to by driving. So in order to lift your suspension, I had to break the law (or, you know, get someone to drive me, which somehow never occurred to me at the time).
I still remember the abject terror of that drive, just knowing I was going to get caught. I imagined that cops watched the parking lot for law breakers like me, waiting to pounce. They didn’t, of course.
This was a crisis of my own making.
It took me a long time to realize that many things that caused me stress were entirely preventable if I’d do a simple thing like pay a parking ticket, or make a phone call, or pick up dry cleaning on time. What I used to chalk up to bad luck or poverty often came down to my own bad choices.
To an extent, some of this is cultural. My culture of origin, Argentina/Spain’s, places a lot of emphasis on forces beyond our control. The weather! The neighbors! That child! All kinds of things conspire to make people late, broke, and worried. American culture, on the other hand, (for the most part), emphasizes personal responsibility. If you get a parking ticket which escalates into a license suspension, it wasn’t really because you couldn’t scrape together the $15, but because you failed to take care of what you needed to take care of.
There may seem to be a clear “good” and “bad” in those two worldviews, but it’s more nuanced than that. Sure, taking personal responsibility is good, but there is a certain coldness and alienation about this culture that can still sometimes grate on me. Tell a friend a problem, and they will very often respond with, “Well, did you…” and point out the ways in which you could have prevented your fate. Tell an Argentinian friend your woes, and she’ll just listen. The American way means that people look at each other knowingly when someone, say, gets sick, because, well, she did eat all those burgers, after all. Think positive, or the negative thinking will get you sicker! An Argentinian friend will shake their fist at the gods with you. It is… comforting. Familiar. Close. It is what friendship feels like, to me, a ride or die person who doesn’t feel the need to perfect you and admonish you, but just be with you.
But it’s also got downsides. I don’t get parking tickets anymore, because I’ve got a driveway (just one example of my privilege), but I still manage to subconsciously find ways to create havoc for myself. The car inspection sticker that doesn’t quite get renewed in time and causes me anxiety as I drive around with the old one in full view. The “pay by mail” toll that I forget to pay. (As I write this, I realize: maybe having a car is my issue?). It has taken me a long time to realize that, having grown up with a lot of anxiety, I don’t so much as crave it, but recognize it. It’s an ugly, worn shoe with holes in it, but it fits just right, and so I keep putting it on, even though I wish I could get new ones.
Anxiety is a habit for me.
The recognition of that is not a cop out. I don’t think that and say, “Oh, well, that’s just how it is.” I strive each day to not drink from that poisoned cup. It is not easy, but I try. I work, too, to realize that always feeling like an outsider can be a gift, a perch from which to observe. I am not Argentinian. I am not American. I am both, and neither, some mix that is a lot like both and not exactly like either. I want both to be understood for my foibles but to be supported in rising above them. I want to be personally responsible but to be understood exactly as I am.
We all get our own inheritances, packed away in a dusty old trunk. The trick is to unpack them, and use what we can, and put away the rest and maybe pick up a few new things along the way. Still working on it.