I’ve read many articles and blog posts about cutting back, going more slowly, about consuming less, about Wabi-Sabi and "undecorating". These all seem connected, and to contain ideas that intuitively appeal to many of us. We read these stories and articles and share them on Twitter, seeming to understand at a visceral level that this is what we need. And then we go back to blogging about stuff and pinning, keeping up with a chockablock reader, while maintaining multiple social networking accounts and scheming ways to make more money so we can buy more of the stuff that we think of not as materialism but as self-expression and identity. Because before we can slow down, we need to get our lives in shape and all of that costs money.
By "we", I mean "me" and only possibly "you".
For a long time, I’ve wanted to want less while unapologetically wanting more. And while my spending philosophy may seem like a "less" approach, I really just buy fewer things that cost more and I’m often still stretching beyond my immediate means. To increase my elasticity, I’ve always increased my workload. And I’ve always been proud of this ability to earn more money when I need to. I will sacrifice a lot in order to reach certain goals. But lately, I’ve really been feeling how all that takes me farther away from that cutting back ideals that appeal so much. And how that short-term pragmatic decision so quickly becomes a way-of-living.
Here’s what I’ve realized (you know, in that patently obvious way when you figure out something you really knew all along): I’ve got to give something up that's hard to give up. That relaxed, slow-movement life will not come about if I keep wanting more, if I keep romanticizing my own ambition and workload and inability to balance it. I have to prioritize my wants and be just as willing to sacrifice some of the "stuff" as I am to sacrifice myself; my time and health.
One of the most annoying truths is that expenditure rises to meet income. I think we all lie in bed and think the thing that would evaporate our stress would be some kind of windfall or income increase. I’ve long been trapped in a mindset that if my income changes I’ll get farther ahead. But looking back at times when my income did change, that's not what happened. It really just got me more stuff-stuff and less of the stuff that’s finite, priceless; time, energy, joy.
There’s a cycle I get stuck in here too (and it applies to both money and food): I work so hard, then I feel deprived. So I treat myself. I don’t have time to treat myself in the meaningful ways that I prioritize in resolutions and ultimate wishlists, so instead I reach for the sugary substitute, the quick fix. It might literally be a little sweet something, or it might be some other equivalent, like a little online purchase at lunch. These treats get me no closer to my long-term goals (sometimes actually they move me in the opposite direction). But they do create a false and fleeting sense of “feeling full”.
Now, I’m not advocating a life without sugar, literally or metaphorically. I like sugar. And I think life should have sweet things. But I also know that I’m living in a manner at odds with what I say I value. That makes me feel pretty greedy. And I can feel that quite physically sometimes, a frantic feeling behind my eyes; to keep up, to read everything in my reader, to tweet at a certain frequency, to redecorate, reinvent, start over, be better.
So once in awhile I pull the plug on all of that. I throw away the blogging schedule, I shut down my Instagram. I recommit to yoga and to cooking recipes from the cookbooks I buy absentmindedly at my desk when trying to create a moment of calm and beauty and oasis. But then a new project percolates up and the work takes over and I fail to see the role my own volition is playing in it, feeling like I don't have any choice in it, that I need to stay until 9pm, that I need to work weekends and holidays.
Last week, I forced a change: I quit one of my freelance jobs. It was work I was very grateful for and in this industry and economy I knew lucky not just to have a day-job in my industry but regular freelance work too. But I had started to see some of my work as a financial nosebag rather than something more meaningful or passionate. I didn’t like that reflection of myself. But, more than using this as an opportunity to self-flagellate over my sense of greed, I also want to recognize that at some level I thought this was the life I was supposed to be content with. I wasn't really standing up for my own happiness.
For months, I’ve been saying that quitting some freelance work would be a “reward” I’d give myself when I achieved certain things. Extricating myself from unhappiness should not be a reward, it should just be something I just do when I recognize I'm not happy. So, last week I gave myself permission to move on from something that was no longer working for me and to move towards new goals, ultimate goals, and – canny as it sounds – happiness.
This is but a first step and I know others have done things way more dramatic, way more liberating. And I still feel conflicted and expect to remain so (and I expect some of you to point out the hypocrisy of this post following a Sunday best, or whatever comes tomorrow... But, like I said, I'm not promising to swear off sugar. Plus, I never mean these posts to be read didactically, they certainly don't represent my own spending or life. And I want to learn to enjoy these ideas and objects without needing to grasp them, rather than pretending they're not there).
Quitting is not easy for me. I’m worried I’ll regret it. I’m worried about what circumstances could arise that create a future unforeseen need. But I made a list around my birthday of the things I want to achieve in the next year. None of them really involve income, but they do involve time and energy and freedom. So, although the worry is there, there’s also an overriding belief… that I have to be an agent of what I really want; that I have to articulate it and then I have to follow through with action. So small as this is, in my little lonesome corner, this act feels like a positive step forward.