I spent the fall of 2009 studying Spanish in Costa Rica. I had finished grad school and wasn’t ready to join the workforce yet (workforce is a strange, rigid-sounding word, isn’t it?). A lot of things about that time in my life will always remain vivid in my memory, but I want to talk this morning about something that I learned from Costa Ricans. Several studies have published surveys measuring life satisfaction, happiness, general lack of stress, etc. Costa Rica always comes out on top in these studies, and I know why.
Whereas we have developed into a culture that can be obsessed with planning and ambition and material wealth, Costa Ricans live simply and are focused on the present. It’s amazing. They don’t talk much about the abstract, distant future. They talk about the funny thing that happened at work today or what they’re having for dinner. They enjoy laughing at each other and at themselves in an unadulterated, good-natured way. They relish life’s wonderful idiosyncratic rhythms and sincerely appreciate small pleasures. The eccentric, jolly man who is always selling lollipops on the bus. The crazy aunt whose regular visits include her beloved small dog peering out from inside her purse. A fresh avocado sprinkled with salt. The rare feeling of the sun bathing your skin in warmth during rainy season.
They are passionate people who feel deeply and value romantic and familial love very highly. The independent spirit that we often strive for seems out of place in this communal society. Families live near each other and people don’t move often. Many older adults have known their neighbors for decades. Children don’t leave home until getting married. People depend on each other and don’t apologize for it. Mega-churches do not exist. Church families are small enough to actually be like families. They rejoice together and suffer together. They carry each other’s burdens.
Everything is slower. They don’t seem to mind waiting for the bus. A visit to a friend’s house for coffee can last for four hours. Nobody seems to have better things to rush off to. They just sit together in their petite living rooms with the windows open enjoying each other’s company and watching the pedestrians meander along the sidewalk.
It took weeks for me to painstakingly unclench and release my need to schedule out the day, spending a sufficient amount of time planning for the future, seeing the sights, studying Spanish in a focused, productive way, spending time with God, etc. Eventually, I embraced this slow, peaceful way of life as best I could. I started to catch on. I journaled. I napped. I went for leisurely walks, stopping at produce stands to smell strange fruits and interact with the locals. I sat with friends in coffee shops and talked and laughed without thinking about the next thing on the agenda. I watched people, studying their exotic features and trying to determine their heritage and took pictures of rain-soaked hydrageas and towering trees. And you know what? I learned more Spanish, got more clarity and peace about what direction I wanted to go with my life, got closer to God and built relationships that will last for a lifetime. I know that it was temporary. All magical times are. And Costa Ricans have worries and bills and inconveniences just like we do. But there is something to it–these studies about life satisfaction in Costa Rica.
People talk about the natural beauty of Costa Rica. The mountains and the rainforests and the astonishing biodiversity are all truly amazing. But equally inspiring and beautiful are the people and the way of life there. They changed me. It’s not as easy to live like that here with the daily grind of work and the pressure to think about my BMI and my credit score and a plethora of other things. I hope, however, that I never stop trying to invest in people instead of things and to appreciate the simple blessings of each day. And, now and then, I hope I can let go of the millions of questions and thoughts about the future that are racing around in my head and simply be where I am.