Keep your edges on game.
Maintain, clean shave.
Burn the remains of life slain to regain control of a brain
That won’t stop you living in pain.
Don’t pay for sins til clouds spit on your grave.
What’s in a name
But a soul; control.
Nine number’s all it takes to harvest energy like cattle.
Don’t think you’re not chattel.
A mastermind no; but a system on fire
Ever searching for a buyer of higher designer ideologies
That simmer men to create psychologies.
Reduced to nothing but the need to repent and beg apology
For daring to set foot atop a crust of a bludgeoned rock under an unloving god.
So what’s the shock
When your grass keeps growing
When your ignorance keeps showing
When you follow the script but still don’t fit it.
What’s your limit
Your mind’s a hornet’s nest, ain’t it best not to kick it?
Keep your edges on game.
I am simple. Everyone wants to proclaim their intricacies; expounding endlessly on the ways they are enchantingly singular. But I am simple. You are simple. We are the same, you and I. There is not so much between us as there is underneath us. Just like a cat in a box that might be both dead and alive, I am both enduringly unique and painfully bland.
Your accomplishments mean nothing. No really, I’m serious, nothing. You will die and your titles, bank accounts, possessions, and relationships will disappear, be liquidated, or slowly fade away. The end result of everything you strive to do in life is inherently meaningless.
I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Making grandiose pessimistic claims. Clearly this is the familiar writing tactic known as the hook: Draw my reader in with something dramatic, be it inspiring or deeply disquieting, and they’re stuck reading whatever nonsense I choose to follow it with. Though I won’t say I’m not using this tactic, I will say it has a greater purpose. The above statements, in my mind, are true. But only if you interpret them in the way I intend.
No one can really argue with the fact that material possessions, status, and other fruits of human life cease to mean much once the person they belonged to is dead. Your bloated bank account may go on to support generations of trust fund babies with your last name, but your decomposing ass won’t be around to know the fucking difference. I recognize that people have trouble with the concept of nonexistence. If you think human souls consciously reside in some ethereal nothingverse before and after death, that’s your own problem. I’m operating from the seemingly logical standpoint (as there’s no real evidence to the contrary) that nonexistence is just what it sounds like: the absence of the ability to experience the world. It is literally impossible to be aware, let alone enjoy, anything in the known universe when your consciousness does not exist. Moving on.
My point is not to drill into you that you will lose everything when you die. It’s an important concept to be aware of, but it doesn’t necessitate repeating at this point. What I would like to do is place emphasis on the phrases accomplishment and success. These are the end caps of journeys and experiences. The little star you get when you turn in your paper. The trophy. The diploma. You get the idea. People are obsessed with accomplishing things. Most of us would probably skip to-do in favor of instant to-done if we had the option. When people are obsessively goal-oriented, you get millionaires who can’t stop being entrepreneurs and folks who pay thousands of dollars to have sherpas carry their shit up to Everest base camp so they can get the “climbed Mt. Everest” star.
I’m lazy so I would never fathom trying to climb a mountain. But I did notice my own obsession with accomplishment in the compulsion to finish books. If I didn’t get to the appendix, it was like I might has well have not even opened it in the first place. I needed to finish it to mark it off as done. I needed the accomplishment of reading that book. What I realized after some time is that nothing actually happens when you finish a book. When you turn the last page, you just close the damn thing and put it back on the shelf. No fireworks. No accolades. No one even knows you finished the book unless you tell them. Often, these accomplishments aren’t just meaningless after death, they are meaningless in life unless you decide to make a big deal out of them to other people.
One of the most liberating decisions of my adult life was to decide I didn’t have to finish books. I could read a book until it no longer felt interesting or important, than put it back on the shelf and possibly never look at it again. I no longer waste my time forcing myself to get to the end of a work of nonfiction that kind of fizzles out, or past the excruciatingly slow beginning of a novel (though sometimes this is worth it if you know something great is coming). There are literally millions of books out there. Why deprive yourself of a good one by using your limited attention on a bad one?
The obsession with finishing things comes from our focus on accomplishments, instead of the actual act of doing something. It has a lot to do with concept of the “disease of more,” which pushes us to constantly strive for new goals without even enjoying the ones we already surpassed. Yet, it’s hard to tell someone to revel in their success without encouraging them to act like an ass. How exactly do you enjoy success other than thinking about or telling people how awesome you are? I would challenge people to go a step further and not even focus on enjoying the success. Focus on what happens before. Focus on the struggle to make incremental improvements towards your goal. Focus on the, well, focus of your mind and/or body it takes to work on your goals. Revel in the fact that you are actually doing something with your life, when you could literally just sit around for 82 years and then die.
It’s not just the obsession with success that causes this problem for people, but our culture’s failure-phobia. Americans love inspirational quotes about never giving up and persevering against all odds. This culture is useful in much the same way teaching everyone to be a leader is useful (spoiler alert: it’s not). If you teach everyone to be a leader, you end up with a bunch of loud people who think they should all be giving orders while no one can listen their way out of a cardboard box. If you teach everyone to incessantly pursue their goals until an endpoint, because “failure” is not an option, you end up with a bunch of people killing themselves to finish things with very little benefit to themselves or society (and probably not enjoying it along the way).
Sometimes you just have to give up. But I would argue that giving up is synonymous with failure only in rare cases. To me, the word failure only applies when you actually eroded yourself in the attempt. Quitting rehab and relegating yourself to being a crack addict would be considered a failure. Letting your friendships atrophy when you move away to a new city would, in most cases, be considered a failure (unless your friends really sucked). In most situations though, the only things “lost” by a supposed “failure” are time and/or money. As I’ve previously stated, money is inherently meaningless and while I can’t say the same for time, chances are if you were wasting it before you quit you sure as hell would have been wasting it if you hadn’t. Payouts at the end of a struggle don’t give you back any of your time, they only serve to make you feel as if you haven’t wasted it.
Unless your goals are really out there, you probably have to do some learning and personal growth to attempt to achieve them. This doesn’t all evaporate when you end the pursuit. My experience working in a startup wasn’t erased from my brain the second I left. Sure, quitting a job you hate after two months doesn’t really look good on a resumé. But people often delude themselves into thinking career prospects are their only reasons for staying, when in reality it’s pure failure-phobia.
Next time you find yourself struggling to finish something you hate, do an experiment and try quitting. See if the universe implodes. Obviously, don’t be a dick. You should probably finish writing that birthday card for your mom and scooping your cat’s litter box. But quitting things that don’t affect anyone other than yourself can be shockingly empowering. Accomplishing things can often feel like taking charge, but really you may just be stumbling downhill, gaining speed as you go but loosing the ability to stop or change course. Choosing to withhold your time, energy, and attention can bring back a sense of control and serve as a reminder that you’re driving this fucked up train called life.
(Hey friends, I just wanted to put in a note that I wrote this post before the incredible tornado of dumpster fires that is Trump’s presidency began. It seems like I’m ignoring the very obvious truth that, in at least the U.S., everything is not in fact amazing. However, I think the concept of cultivating happiness in your own mind holds extra significance in tough times. So while this post lacks a little bit of temporal relevance, I hope you’ll still find its points useful.)
It’s amazing how I can walk through life with a personal philosophy bordering on nihilism yet still experience the effects of a generalized anxiety disorder. You’d think one would surely preclude the other. How can the mundane tasks of an ordinary day stress someone who sees the cosmic futility and overall unimportance of absolutely everything they do? This is just one of several great examples of the magic and mystery of the human brain.
The answer to this question answers several others, including but not limited to: Why don’t people take their own advice? How do I keep making the same mistakes? Why is it so difficult to choose to be happy?
In case you haven’t noticed, your brain is not your personal assistant. You do not hand it a list of tasks to complete, and it does not respond, “Roger that!” and get straight to work making your life easier. Your brain, while quite possibly being the most complex and advanced piece of biological equipment in the known universe, is still just a collection of reactionary components. It is designed, by natural selection, Mother Nature, God, whatever you want to call it, to respond to stimuli in order to keep you alive. The ability to conceptualize and enjoy the experiences with the world our brains give us is a special, and fairly recent (evolutionarily speaking), externality of this complexity. Yet this little footnote is the cornerstone of our world.
The ways in which the archaic machinery of our brains inhibits the enjoyment of “modern life” has been addressed ad nauseum by people far smarter than myself. For great reads on the subject, try Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by the surprisingly snarky neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky or Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. The first gets into the nitty gritty of how and why our brains mess with our health and lives, the second attempts to give strategies on how to fix this.
My intention is not to attempt to summarize the information in these books to tell you how to live better. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that information alone is not enough. To put a spotlight on how fucking hard it is to change your mind. Just like the hippies you meet at music festivals who complain about our political system yet can’t seem to stumble their way to a voting booth come November, seeing the cracks doesn’t always lead to trying to fix them.
In most forms of schooling we’re taught to learn and regurgitate pertinent information. If you’re one of the lucky people with a sticky brain, some flashcards are all you need to push concepts past recognition and into the filing cabinets of your brain. Others absorb information more like temporary tattoos, the details pristine when the sponge is removed, but fading in the days that follow. Regardless of how easily you remember mathematical theorems and Latin names, attempting to change the very nature of your mind is more like the second model. No matter how long you soak that Lisa Frank kitten, or how delicately you pull off the paper, you’re not going to get much more than a week out of that sucker.
Learning something, even digesting information on a deep, contemplative level does not directly lead to manifesting it. Just because you intellectually know something to be true does not mean your reality changes to reflect this fact. This is why dreams, psychedelic experiences, and pain do not disappear once you realize they are constructs of your neurology, rather than realities being imposed directly on you by the outside world.
Your reality is produced by your brain. At first glance, this can be a freeing notion. If our brains produce our individual realities and we are in control of our brains, we all must be free to design our own realities. This is the premise on which Buddhists build the capacity to resist suffering, enduring severe pain and discomfort without so much as a shudder. But for all of us who haven’t made it to Buddhist monk status, the realization that your brain constructs your reality can be the opposite of freeing. More than likely, it means you are at the mercy of the predispositions of an undisciplined mind. It means you can be surrounded by beauty, comfort, and love yet still feel empty and alone.
In other words…
Recently, I found myself at odds with a philosophy I had adopted in full: don’t give advice you don’t already follow. Essentially I’m scared of being a hypocrite. I can’t tell someone to avoid packaged foods if I ate a nutrigrain bar the other day. I can’t tell someone they should start meditating regularly when I’m lucky if I get to it a couple times a month. How dare I tell someone to reduce their dependency on drugs when I’m generally on two cups and a bowl a day.
What made me realize the problem in this philosophy was, strangely enough, Krav Maga. During a training drill, I was told to correct my partner’s form. My partner had been coming to class longer than I had, her form wasn’t perfect but it was sure as hell better than mine. It was like my entire mind hit a wall; I literally couldn’t correct her. Our instructor threatened us with pushups if he didn’t hear constructive criticism coming from every pair. I panicked. Finally I blurted out, “Widen your stance a little, and pivot more at the hips.” To my anxious brain’s shock and dismay, my partner responded with, “Oh! Right!” and repositioned herself for the next flurry of jabs and crosses. Really? No calls of hypocrisy. No eye rolls? No wordless facial communicating of “this bitch”? Why would this person take advice from a novice? Because like it or not, her stance was too narrow and she was not pivoting at the hips enough. Facts are facts, regardless of who communicates them. And facts help make people better.
Does this revelation make it any easier to criticize my partners in class? Fuck no. Just knowing a fact does not immediately change your behavior to align with it. And this is the whole point of this seemingly aimless, rambling anecdote. Just because you see the realities of your life and the surrounding universe, does not mean that change immediately follows. Changing the way you perceive and interact with the world around requires diligent, constant, and often difficult mental action.
I see this evidenced so clearly in my dealings with introversion and social anxiety. Logically, I know people care far more about what’s going on in their own lives than what comes out of my mouth. Yet I still find myself acting as if others’ opinions of me change drastically in response to every small thing I say or do. I also behave as if the opinions of strangers and loose acquaintances actually affect me when, logically, I also know this to be false.
The problem is that your brain gets wired a certain way by genetics, the way you are raised, and your experiences as you grow into adulthood. If you were taught impeccable manners by your parents after inheriting a predisposition for generalized anxiety, you may end up stuck in these thought patterns (like me). You may have created a negative feedback loop with yourself in grade school, where you perceived situations as going better the more you worried and planned for them, rewarding your brain for debilitating over-activity.
Sadly, the pathways created by repeat behaviors and cycles of reward centers in your brain are much easier to create than to break (for more on this see Hardwiring Happiness). Thus, forcing your brain to actually align it’s responses with new information you’ve gained about the world, instead of with what it already thought it knew, is like trying to walk in immaculate tall grass instead of a flattened deer path. You must consciously focus on lifting your legs higher than you normally would and pay attention to where you are setting them down. To change the way you think, and thus feel, you must constantly acknowledge and often redirect your own thoughts.
I want people to understand that there is really no such thing as “enlightenment.” Sure, those Buddhist monks have their shit pretty together, and it’s not likely they’ll relapse into anxiety-ridden, caffeine-guzzling westerners anytime soon. But the idea of being enlightened (or my current favorite shorthand phrase, “woke as fuck”) is that it implies stasis. It gives the impression that once you figure out how your mind works and how to control it, you’ve unlocked the achievement and life is smooth-sailing from then on. Instead, I want people to realize that taking on the endeavor of being self-aware is a lifelong commitment to a very complex game. It’s a game that feels like work and can often be exhausting. And it’s a game in which you will never stop racking up points and those points will never be enough. But it also may be the only game worth playing.
Common adages of gift-giving tend to center around the idea that nothing should be expected in return. True gifts are given to elevate the happiness of both the gifter and the giftee, not to further personal agendas. But the Darwinian concept of altruism leads me to believe this is, to put it bluntly, a lot of horseshit. Most who have taken any kind of animal behavior or evolution class may recall that instances of “altruism” in the animal world aren’t so warm and fuzzy. Most “selfless” acts of animals are indeed selfish on the genetic level, as Richard Dawkins has so thoroughly pointed out. Altruistic deeds such as sharing food or grooming a friend have been linked mostly to one of two explanations: kin selection or expectation of return on investment, so to speak.
Adult male birds of some species may forgo having their own “family” in favor of helping mom raise the next generation of chicks. This occurs because the male somehow recognizes better odds in passing on his genes by aiding the survival of his (likely half) brothers and sisters than by trolling for bitches (passing along his genes directly). Why does this happen? Maybe that bird is fugly. Maybe he’s really directionally challenged. Or maybe he’s just more of a grey-ace. Whatever the reason, his nanny-like role in this weird Brady bunch bird family is for his genes’ gain, not charity. This is referred to as kin selection.
In a different example, unrelated primates who live together in troops often groom one another or share food. Now, sometimes the primate in question happens to be one of those adventurous foodie types that like to eat bugs. In this case his grooming is of a bit more symbiotic nature, not altruistic. But in many other cases, the debris removed from the back hair of a comrade are not valued, and the job is being done as a sort of friendly service. How altruistic! Except no…well, sort of. Most biologists and behaviorists would probably agree that primates engage in these activities to strengthen social bonds and up the chance that a friend will come to their aid in the future. In short, they expect a return on their friendly investment someday. Primate friends that are always on the receiving end of these good deeds are more likely to be ignored by their so-called friends, and eventually even expelled from the group.
If anywhere near thousands of people read my blog (hahaha), hundreds of those people would now be clamoring to say “well yeah, animals are selfish because they aren’t evolved like us, and don’t understand love in the dimension we humans do.” And I would say, that’s a fine argument and a notable possibility. But it’s just a possibility. I’d argue a small one at that. Let’s not pretend to be ignorant to the role so-called “gifts” play in human social record keeping. Folks in business and politics exchange money, goods, and services every day in the hopes of getting closer to a desired outcome, loosely camouflaging their contributions as “gifts.” Most people seem to accept this fact yet refuse to entertain the idea that almost all gift giving might be tainted with similar intentions of self-service. As above, so below.
To me, the question is simply whether these intentions are conscious or not. You may not think you’re giving someone a gift to strengthen a social bond and increase your chance of receiving something (either tangible or intangible) from that person later one, but it’s still entirely possible this motive is buried in your subconscious. If you’ve read anything in this blog before this post, you’re probably aware I’m not of the opinion that humans are a chosen species existing in a moral and emotional realm head and shoulders above all other life on Earth. I recognize that our cognitive capabilities have developed to a level so as to serve as our primary survival mechanism and have thus surpassed those of other species. But I do not believe we have extracted ourselves entirely from survival-oriented mental processes.
My understanding of the biological function of altruism coupled with what I would characterize as moderate to severe introversion have led me to hate the practice of gift giving. I find myself continually searching for exchange rates. If this person gave me an unexpected gift, what is an appropriate gesture to exchange for this at some point down the road? Regardless of whether or not that person “thinks” they want something in return, the imbalance of social cues that has been created in my brain becomes at best an irritant, at worst a source of stress and shame. Sure this can occur in other ways besides gift-giving. Maybe a friend has helped you through an emotional crisis, or helped you out financially and you haven’t had an opportunity to return the favor. This creates and imbalance of social exchange as well. However, nothing seems so direct and superfluous as gift-giving. The imbalance is created for silly, arbitrary reasons and the course of action to even the score is not always clear.
Occasions hardly make the situation better. Those who know me well are probably familiar with my distaste for Christmas. They may also know it arises almost entirely from the practice of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. To me, Christmas time is a social minefield of opportunities to be ambushed by surprise gifts. I take almost no joy in receiving gifts unless I have an equivalent one to give. This explanation of why I hate gifts does not even touch on my hatred of “stuff.” That’s a separate rant though. See this post from 2015 if you’d like that angle.
I don’t really have an agenda here. I’m not advocating we abolish all gift giving in the name of science. Nor am I trying to call bullshit on people who insist they just really like giving gifts and never hope to receive anything in return. If you’re one of those people, I appreciate your intentions and commend your kindness. Mostly I just find it interesting to dissect things that most people find normal but I find odd or uncomfortable and look at why this might be. Furthermore I know there are other people who feel this way. The more validity I can add to our viewpoint on the subject, the more likely people are to start listening to us when we say we don’t want gifts. However, if you’d like a concrete take-home message from this rant let it be this: the greatest gift you can give me is not giving me gifts. Happy holidays or something.
There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.
I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.
The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.
It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.
I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.
I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”
Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.
Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.
Here I go making brash, vague, and mildly irritated statements with my title again. And here I go attempting to explain the rat’s nest that is my neurotic brain again.
What is a one-word ideology? Simply put, it’s a boring, limiting, and underdeveloped way of looking at the world. It’s allowing yourself to subscribe entirely to pre-conceived ideas instead of absorbing information on a case-by-case basis and developing your own opinion. Probably the most familiar one-word ideologies are religions and political affiliations. However, I think it’s entirely possible to have religious beliefs and political leanings without letting a collection of them become your ideology. Just because you believe in being nice to people and praying to a certain god doesn’t mean Christianity governs your life.
Religion and political profiles aren’t the only one-word ideologies. Basically anything that someone identifies as in a public forum without proper credentials could be an example. By “proper credentials” I mean legitimate, practical reasoning for referring to yourself as such. Do you clean people’s teeth for a living? It’s probably ok to call yourself a hygienist. Have you worked as a researcher and professor at a prominent university for years? You might be an academic. These aren’t ideologies, these are just short, information-packed words that describe what you do with most of your time.
Ideologies are much more nebulous. Despite dictionary definitions, their meanings and rules fluctuate based on whom you’re talking to. It can be difficult to pin down exact meanings for ideologies, but that doesn’t stop people from using them as powerful identifiers. People assume a lot about someone that identifies with a certain political group, philosophy, or lifestyle.
The obvious trouble with subscribing to a one-word ideology is that it deprives you of open discourse and even limits your cognitive ability by refining your thoughts to a matrix of pre-conceived, internally confirmed ideas. Adopting a rigid set of rules that govern the way information is processed by your mind can lead to a warped perception of actual facts such as statistics. If you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, you may jump to an opinion on an issue without even analyzing the facts because others of your “tribe” feel a certain way. We are all familiar with this and I don’t think I need to expound any further. You’ve seen Facebook.
A less obvious drawback to navigating the world through one-word ideologies however is that it can actually screw up your relationships with people. And I don’t mean getting into an argument with your racist, homophobic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner; that guy is a dick and you shouldn’t care if your relationship with him is ruined. I’m talking about assuming you understand someone when you really don’t. I’m talking about accepting a word as an explanation of how someone sees the world when what you really need is a library.
People cannot truly be defined by one-word ideologies. And if they think they can, they’re not thinking enough. If you can really explain the way you choose to live and think in one word, I’m willing to bet your ideology just sucks. Instead of telling me you’re a vegan, explain the mental process you used to determine that eating meat and consuming animal products is wrong. And moreover, is it wrong for you or is it wrong for everyone? These are important details. A lot of people hate vegans because they assume their decision to abstain from something is an indication of their wishes for everyone to abstain from it. This isn’t always the case.
Taking one-word ideologies as an indication of personality is also fraught with peril. You might choose friends because they share your religion or lifestyle, but you may quickly find out these choices aren’t prerequisites to being a decent human being. Jumping too quickly into relationships with people based on their prominent self-identifiers can surround you with individuals who offer you little more than surface-level affinity and confirmation bias.
I feel it’s important to point out that I understand the value of identifiers in the social lives of human beings. With more than seven billion people on earth, it’s kind of hard to be friends with everyone. You need to start somewhere in picking who you choose to spend your time with. It takes a long time to delve into someone’s mental process to determine how they see the world, and it’s a lot easier to build a picture of them based on a collection of cookie-cutter identifiers. But a lot of people are actually starved for good conversation. In a world where the “appropriate” topics of polite conversation leave a lot to be desired, I tend to find many people are relieved to have someone ask them about the deeper workings of their mind, such as their motives and core values.
But good relationships are hardly ever quick and easy to build. Just like good ideas, good relationships take time, thought, and understanding. I believe investing in the quality of our own ideas can help us understand the complexity of others’. If your worldview takes more than a word to explain, why would you accept a one-word label for someone else? Seeing opinions, values, and beliefs in this way opens up a conversation abut the roots of those ideas. I’m far more interested in the logic and reasoning behind someone’s opinion than the opinion itself.
The past few weeks I’ve been trying (and succeeding I might add) to sell my old playstation 2 and games since I don’t really play it much anymore and it’s just taking up space at this point. In doing so I’ve had more strangers visit my apartment than I would ever normally expect. It was interesting to observe the reactions of the people when they finally managed to find my teeny tiny remodeled motel of an apartment “complex” and then my teeny tiny apartment all the way in the back. More than one of the strangers said something to the effect of “I didn’t even realize these were apartments” or “I thought this was a motel”, which is totally to be expected, I thought the same thing when I went to visit the place before signing a lease.
I didn’t think anything of it really until today, when the guy who was coming in to buy my controllers had trouble opening the door with my ill-fitted draft protector from amazon wedged awkwardly beneath it. “Sorry” I said, laughing as I fixed the cumbersome thing, “I’m poor and this helps with the electric”. Before he left, he asked why I was selling my playstation. “Well I don’t really use it much anymore and I’m poor, so…” I said, laughing again. He seemed mildly taken aback that I was so fond of referring to myself as “poor” but laughed politely and took his leave.
After the encounter I thought to myself, why am I so quick to say that? By all rational consideration, I am not poor. I work a job that pays well above minimum wage, I live in a safe area of town in an apartment by myself, I’m never hungry, etc. I’m also not ashamed of my lifestyle in any way. I find extravagance to be far more embarrassing and hope that people never assume I’m wealthy or spoiled. I think me countering with “I’m poor” is a sort of shortcut because I don’t want to give the whole answer. I don’t want to explain why I’d rather have a little extra cash than things I don’t really need, or that my apartment looks like a motel because it totally is one and I love the location and size, or why I choose not to work full-time. It’s easier for people to understand my choices if I just communicate in the most clear way that I don’t have a lot of money to throw around.
Being poor in a developing country or in blighted inner-city neighborhoods here in the US can mean spending most of your day worrying about how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. For that reason, it seems utterly insulting to compare my lifestyle to that of someone who actually struggles with poverty. Yet our culture of consumption is so strong that if a person is not actively consuming as much as they can, people start to question your choices. Amassing things and space you don’t need is a sign of happiness and wealth so by this logic, selling off possessions and taking up as little space as possible must be sign of desperation and poverty.
I wish more people would develop the distaste for extravagance I have and embrace the liberating experience of discovering what you actually need to be happy. Once you start viewing runaway consumption for what it is—an act of violence on the rest of the resource-consuming world for taking up far more than your fair share—it is rather hard to go back to thinking you really need a hummer or three video game consoles. I think the tiny house movement and the “hipster” popularization of thrift shopping, local food, and other money and/or resource-saving escapades are steps in the right direction, but I also think they are often taken for the wrong reasons. Fads can only take a movement so far until they get watered down into completely appearance-based phenomena and suddenly you have people paying two million dollars for designer tiny homes and several hundred for used suits. When this happens, the movement’s credibility is lost entirely and everyone goes back to hating hipsters.
So the question really becomes, how do we make being “poor” acceptable, even cool? By this I of course mean that choosing to work less, spend less, and accumulate less isn’t viewed as being poor or even as being a hipster, but as being sensible and making choices that prioritize quality of life over quantity of stuff.