Armenia Needs Hippies


In the last few months, I've had ample opportunity to refine the purpose of my experiment in societal development that began when I purchased my house in Kalavan village five years ago. I saw so much opportunity then among a small group of Armenian villagers who invited me to live with them and portrayed themselves as sharing the same core values regarding cultural and economic development that I'd spent a lifetime developing.

It's no secret that my experiences here in Kalavan since then have largely persuaded me otherwise. I've become convinced that it is virtually impossible to build a new paradigm in people who have already solidified their worldview, no matter what they claim to the public at large. Progress cannot happen in people who take pride in the broken way they see and do things. Social reinforcement of cultural norms negates the introduction of new ideas. Every member of a localized group already thinks in a like manner. It becomes a psychological defense mechanism, like a forcefield for ideas. If any one member of the group starts to think or act too divergently, the group will employ pressure and shame to realign them with the sacred, accepted Way.

Possibly, the only viable path to sustained cultural and economic improvement is to organically introduce people to alternatives through casual exposure—so casual that they may not even notice it at first but still potent enough to eventually result in growth. Sooner or later, people, especially the young and curious, notice that there are better ways to live and pursue their values than by following the same outdated instructions as everyone else around them. It is already obvious how my mere presence in Kalavan has forced the village to evolve in key ways, which is to say nothing of those individuals who regularly associate with me and have gradually adopted a new worldview because of it.

Armenia, so set in its ways, so steadfast that it has been doing things the best way they can be done for generations since antiquity, has lost its ability to consider innovation. Without an injection of outside influence, I fear that Armenia may decline into a complete cultural deadzone, where no forward motion occurs and all novel ambitions are immediately stamped out in the minds that house them. I would even put forward that Armenia is culturally isolated from the world, and it's part of the reason the world doesn't give a shit when shit happens to Armenians.

Think I'm exaggerating? Are you aware that Armenians have a pejorative term for Armenians who don't act like "Armenians:" "otar" or "odar" (օտար). It directly translates to "foreign" and is used to spread division between good, pure, true Armenians who have been wholly indoctrinated into their national worldview and those who threaten it by thinking a little too much for themselves (usually because they have been exposed to foreign influence by living abroad or associating with foreigners and their media).

The opposite would be a "qyartu" (քյարթու), meaning an undeveloped Armenian who doesn't think too much for themselves or question the way they have been instructed to live. They are highly judgemental of and, in the worst cases, even violent toward anyone they perceive as an existential threat to their sense of identity and narrow, traditional way of life.

I believe the solution to a nation populated by closed minds is to import and nurture minds that are the opposite in nature: exceptionally open. What Armenia needs more than anything else is to welcome the hippies of the world within its borders—to offer them a comfortable place to reside and let them express the creativity, openness to experience, and personal freedom they naturally overflow with.

A hippie, as I use the term, is someone who largely disregards societal expectations for who they should be and how they should live. They can be known by many other names, too: outcasts, anarchists, iconoclasts, bohemians, gypsies, free spirits, weirdos, and freaks, to name a few. All these terms are comparisons to something—contrasts against a general norm for how human beings are supposed to think and act according to local worldviews.

The hippie, outcast, anarchist, iconoclast, bohemian, gypsy, free spirit, weirdo, or freak is one who lives in counterposition to the norm. When enough of these confidently self-expressed people congregate in a space locked down by tradition and expectation, they contribute new influence, just by existing, that helps liberate those around them who are not so confidently self-expressed. It takes an equally strong positive force to resist and overcome the negative stranglehold that a place like Armenia has on self-expression.

Hippies are extremely open-minded. It's their defining feature across all subclasses and other distinctions. They can also be extremely smart, creative, exploratory, philosophical, and even visionary or revolutionary under the right circumstances. They are curious about new experiences, subjects, skills, and people. They cannot be afraid to try new things, and they must trust that they will adapt to new situations or solve unexpected problems that arise from their unconventional way of living in the world.

Most hippies, however, are unrefined, especially if they are still young. This makes them reckless, often to their and others' detriment. I know I certainly was when I was 18 and first moved into a van while completing high school in Southern California just to establish my freedom and independence as early as possible. This obviously carried over when I started traveling the world alone soon after.

Hippies can also lack responsibility, which sometimes includes proper empathy and respect toward others. They can be negligent because they are so focused on just feeling good. It originates in their internal drive to avoid restriction or repression for themselves, but it might take time to properly grow to encompass all others in the same mandate: Don't restrict or repress anyone else with your behavior either.

The free spirit, as the label implies, seeks freedom at all costs, which is something that cultures with populations defined by fear and shame, such as Armenia, struggle to understand or accept. They cannot see the inherent worth of this outlook on life, including how, with just a bit more maturity and structure, most reckless hippies could evolve into respectable artists, philosophers, and intellectuals who contribute something of unique value to human culture.

Those who can embrace the strength of their intellect go on to revel in abstract ideas. They confront and solve complex problems on a scale and at a depth most people aren't even aware of and certainly aren't capable of operating at. They will constantly seek to change, grow, and improve in any way possible. They can also make extremely effective entrepreneurs if they are structured enough to learn the basics of universal economic principles.

Hippies can come from anywhere in the world, even the least likely and most repressed places that might force them to move abroad for their comfort or safety. It's not strictly a Western (or Californian) phenomenon. It's a capacity that resides in the universal human psyche (or soul). However, America has historically done a better job at maintaining the conditions that allow such souls to arise than most anywhere else in the world.

What I aim to offer now is a new America within Armenia. Arm-erica. Bear in mind that when I say this, I don't mean what the US has become in modern times; I mean the ideals that shaped it in its noble early years of independence and freedom from authoritarian rule. America was founded and populated as a nation of immigrants (the first melting pot in the world, so far as I am aware), which necessarily led to far greater cultural diversity than was common at the time.

Back when it was the youngest nation in the world, freshly having broken away from British monarchy in an unprecedented revolution, the United States quickly became seen as a land of opportunity for those with no place else to go or who faced oppression or poverty back home. Countless thousands boldly undertook the dangerous trek across the Atlantic, on their own or with family in tow, to seek out a new life in a new type of civilization at America's frontier, where few had gone before. It must have felt like going to another planet back then, including all the uncertainty of even completing the treacherous journey with such crude transportation technology.

One hundred and ten years after independence, the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island became a national symbol of these hopes and ideals found uniquely in America. Liberty Enlightening the World, they called it. A famous sonnet, The New Colossus, was cast in bronze as a reminder of the statue's purpose and meaning. I hang a paraphrased version of that same promise at the entrance to my house now:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp. Give me your tired, your poor—your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me."

That first line, "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp," stands out to me as uniquely appropriate in this new context here in Armenia. Has there ever been a better description for Armenia than this? An ancient land full of old stories that people continue to hopelessly base their pride and identity on. A population obsessed with its own tradition and history, for better or worse. The national Armenian ego is built on narratives passed down for generations about who they are and (more importantly) must continue to be, including passing that burden onto their own hapless offspring.

Those early American immigrants, who left their old lives to seek freedom and opportunity at great cost, were the antithesis in spirit to modern Armenians. They knew, against all existing precedent, that they were not limited to what they had been told to be. They were future-oriented people who saw the path ahead as fundamentally different and superior to everything that had come before. They had hope. Those who were considered outcasts—the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse, and the homeless tempest-tossed—went, at last, where they would be celebrated and treated best.

A more recent and relevant example happened in 1915 when tens of thousands of Armenian refugees were forced to flee their homeland and came to America with hopes of surviving and being accepted in this land of desperate immigrants. My grandmother, Mariam Goekjian, was among them. Perhaps, part of the otar bohemian spirit lives on in me from her.

The Goekjians in 1921, featuring my grandmother Mary in the center as a little girl. Photo taken from the book Voyage Through Stormy Seas by my great-uncle Vahram K. Goekjian.

The latest change to my lifestyle experiment here in Kalavan is that I now host helpers, volunteers, and enthusiasts from around Armenia and elsewhere who are seeking a freer way to live in a world that largely still suppresses them. I am proud to designate my house as a refuge for such souls—a creative, entrepreneurial, dynamic, and industrious community for those who have not yet found a place to belong in the world. I offer shelter and aid to anyone willing to make the long, arduous trek up to Kalavan village and earnestly commit to improving it with their presence. Fortunately, even a two-hour drive from Yerevan and 20 minutes of unpaved road up to Kalavan are not nearly so dangerous and inconvenient as the months America's immigrants once faced at sea.

My first free-spirited guests arrived in January, in the middle of winter, due to an account I made on a website called Workaway that connects volunteers with hosts. So far, I've had Germans, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Iranians stay and work on developing themselves, the house, and the village. But this is only the beginning. Many Armenians, too, have slowly crept out of the shadows of their restrictive culture to inquire about liberating themselves and looking to someone like me, an established expert in the field of self-liberation, to help them figure out how to do so.

It's only appropriate. I spent my twenties as a wandering hippie, nomading around the world and seeking shelter wherever I could find it among accommodating souls. Now, a bit older, wiser, and more structured and established, I can offer the same to others that I once needed.

Qualities we are looking for at Gregory Diehl's Kalavan Guesthouse and Retreat Center:

  • Open-minded and eager to learn.
  • Brave enough to stand up for unconventional choices in the face of social shame and ridicule.
  • Concerned about the social, cultural, and economic problems plaguing humanity, particularly Armenia.
  • Value freedom, self-expression, and independence—not just for yourself but for everyone.
  • Good self-managers who don't need to be told what to do all the time and can always find a productive way to contribute.
  • Courteous, communicative, and determined to become the best, most fully expressed version of who they are.


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