This article from Joshua Becker of The Minimalists landed in my Inbox this week. It made me smile, because I certainly am a person who, when problem solving, frequently considers adding something rather than subtracting something.
The way this shows up in my life is not with stuff, but with the demands I place on myself. My default response to low energy, not feeling well, emotional or physical pain, frustration, and feeling discouraged is to drive myself harder, do more, move faster.
I could write for the rest of my life on all the ways this does not work, but I’ll spare you.
Yet it continues to be my unconscious default in every case.
A case in point is my exercise routine. I’ve begun working with a personal trainer.
I haven’t been able to exercise regularly until the last three or four years because of my autoimmune disease. When I finally fixed my inflammatory problems with a carnivore diet, I discovered I could participate in regular exercise and stretching without throwing my muscles into spasm. I bought some weights and put together a couple of workouts.
The combination of repetitions, weights, and stretching I’ve been using has occasionally made me sore but not triggered a catastrophic inflammatory response in my body, as long as I don’t eat plants or sugar. However, I began to get bored with my routines, and I didn’t always feel like spending an hour getting through them. I discover I also wasn’t very even in the muscle groups I was working and stretching. Who knew?
A personal trainer knew!
My trainer is well aware of my propensity to push myself too hard, a trait we share, so she is developing new routines for me, briefer, more balanced, and without so much weight. I started following her guidance a couple of weeks ago, but I felt guilty about it. If working for 20-30 minutes is good, working for an hour must be much better. If working with 3-lb hand weights is good, working with 5 lbs must be better, along with ankle weights.
My trainer gave me several new stretches and asked me to spend more time with them, but stretching is surely not as good as lots of reps and weight. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds eats up a lot of time I should be spending working harder, right?
I followed her advice about everything, curious but also convinced I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough.
Then I read about additive vs. subtractive problem solving, and smiled to myself. Less weight. Shorter, more evenly balanced workout routines. A few targeted slow stretches, which I’ve begun doing throughout the day, as I’m chronically tense and stretching reminds me to slow down, breathe, and be kind to myself.
What I discover is I feel better. I have more fun exercising. It’s easier to face a 20-30 minute session than an hour-long one.
Instead of using exercise as one more way to push myself too far, following the expertise of a personal trainer has transformed it into self-care. Real self-care. Loving self-care. More effective, more appropriate self-care.
It feels strange. Too easy. Too gentle.
Working smarter rather than harder has always been an idea I don’t quite trust. It makes intellectual sense, and I would encourage anyone I care about to consider it, but when I think about applying it to myself it feels like a cop-out. I expect myself to work smart and hard.
Whatever our challenges, from our most personal to our most public, it appears we naturally think of additive solutions. This tendency certainly benefits a consumerist culture. How would our power change if we taught ourselves to consider subtraction as well as addition when managing problems and challenges?
When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.
The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.
I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).
In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.
I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.
I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!
As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.
Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.
College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.
I still wince when I think of the money wasted.
Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making ourselves bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.
Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.
Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.
On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.
It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.
Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.
Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.
I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.
Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.
Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together.
This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.
I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?
It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.
Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.
Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.
In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.
I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.
During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.
I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.
We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?
Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?
And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?
What about our failing democracy?
Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.
That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.
It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?
I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.
I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.
Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.
The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.
We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.
Now, wouldn’t that be something?
I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.
Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
I first heard that quote five years ago. It gave me comfort, because it allowed the possibility that my feeling of isolation and alienation at the time was a normal response. The problem, I find, with taking too much responsibility is one stops excavating interpersonal challenges. Instead, we assume it’s all our fault because we know we’re broken. This attitude effectively blocks further inquiry into what the people around us are up to. If we can be taught or manipulated into believing we’re the core of the problem in social interaction, our shame and guilt give those around us a free pass to behave however they like and treat us however they wish. No matter what happens, they can count on us to blame ourselves.
A friend of mine recently pointed out a lot of social media buzz about normalizing obesity. As I am not on social media, I did some research into memes and articles about this issue, and everything I saw made me think of the Krishnamurti quote.
Here again I see sloppy language. Almost every source agrees carrying too much weight on our frame is unhealthy. Unhealthy, as in bad for one’s health. Not ugly, stupid, lazy, lacking self-control, or a whole host of other slurs, taunts and unkind criticisms many overweight people have endured their whole lives.
Obesity is unhealthy. The fact that we have so many people struggling with obesity in this country doesn’t change unhealthy to healthy because it’s so common. A growing population of obese people signals a profoundly unhealthy society. Normal, as in usual, typical or expected, does not imply useful, healthy, functional or positive.
Is normal a goal, or is it merely a cop-out? Is normal something we aspire to because it makes us bigger, or is it something we have to make ourselves smaller in order to fit into? Who gets to decide what is usual, typical or expected? What are the consequences of choosing not to be usual, typical or expected?
I can answer that one. Consequences include tribal shaming, deplatforming, silencing and other violent, destructive and coercive responses.
Normal is one of those words we define ourselves. Normal describes something not aberrant or abnormal. Abnormal is the absence of normal. That distinction can be useful, but in a limited way. Conflating normality with Good and abnormality or different with Bad (or vice versa) is mindless, black-and-white groupthink, the kind of ideology driving genocide, religious persecution and racism.
Our culture and context help us define normal, but if our society is profoundly sick, to be well-adjusted and “normal” within it is to be profoundly sick.
This is particularly true when I look at money. I’m noticing an ever-widening gap between money and value in my own life and in the lives around me. Until recently, I thought of all resource as money, and a life without some magical amount of money I never defined and could never access would be a safe, successful life.
But money is only one kind of resource, and for me it’s the weakest kind. This thinking is definitely not normal by our cultural standards, but I believe it’s becoming more common. Minimalism is a growing trend, and those of us who explore and practice it are very clear about the relative value of money, time, contribution, experience, relationships, creativity, relaxation and joy. If earning money burns up all our other resources, we can’t replace them. Money won’t buy them back for us. A tree, an afternoon in the sun, a lap full of a child, the arms of a friend, the ability to lend someone a helping hand, are all beyond the power of money.
I don’t say money is bad or useless. I am dismayed, however, at what a God we’ve made out of it in this culture. During my lifetime the middle class has disappeared and the chasm between those very few who have significant financial resource and the billions of us who don’t seems likely to tear the planet apart.
A lot of sad people out there think money is power. It’s not. Our power is in our intelligence, our hearts, and our souls, not in our bank accounts. We have to make ourselves increasingly small and, ironically, impoverished, in order to adjust well to our deteriorating and unsustainable capitalist consumer culture.
In this house, we’re frequently in need of money to pay bills, buy groceries, keep up with car costs, buy a new pair of swim goggles, and buy a new fan for the furnace (our old one is beginning to sound like an airplane falling out of the sky when it kicks on). Most of the time, we don’t have money when we want it, but we manage to have what we need when it’s essential.
I used to feel terrified, ashamed, and like a failure because of my lack of financial resource. My relationship with money ruled my life. My hunger for more was never satisfied. When I had more I caught up with all my expenses and then I was broke again. It was a game I could never win.
I see now it’s a gameno one ever wins, yet we all go on compulsively playing it, chasing the lie that enough money will provide us with love, success, healing, healthy relationships, confidence, power, and a sense of purpose and meaning. We’re so busy playing the game we have no time to recognize or welcome into our lives the things that do have the power to give us what we want.
Ultimately, accumulating money for its own sake is an expression of impotence. What’s more sterile and pointless than a lot of digits sitting in an account? The tool of money is useless unless we put it to work. If (when) the economy crashes, a piece of paper with our account information on it will be of less use than toilet paper.
What will matter is our ability to form loving, compassionate connections with others and our willingness to collaborate sustainably with Planet Earth. Our ability to both teach and learn will be important. Our skills and integrity will be important. Our laughter and creativity will be essential. If we can translate whatever financial resource we have into these things, we’ve made good use of our money. We’ve invested in sustainability and resilience, real resource for real life.
Frequent readers know how much I enjoy playing with frames. If we feel rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and crazy, perhaps the problem is not us at all. Perhaps the problem is we’re trying to fit into a profoundly sick society, and the fact that we can’t means we’re retaining some measure of health, even in the face of tremendous social pressure.
Those rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and I-feel-crazy ones are the people I’m writing for. Those are my people. Their courage, compassion and generosity are the wind beneath my wings. Our shared truths, tears, scars, love and broken places shape a womb where a healthier life for all can be nurtured.
I recently read an article from The Minimalists titled “Prepared to Walk Away.” The Minimalists is a blog about simplifying all aspects of our lives by reducing our physical, mental and technological clutter. For most who embrace this way of living, the first challenge is to declutter. The flip side of decluttering is mindful acquisition, and that’s the part of the essay that really caught my attention.
Some people think of minimalism as something practiced by wealthy elites who live in large, white, coldly antiseptic, ultra-modern spaces. It’s trendy right now to declutter and organize, an interesting push back against the relentless consumerism of the twentieth century. I hate clutter and love to be organized, but that isn’t what most attracts me to the practice of minimalism.
What I have my eye on are the intangibles in life, the stories, beliefs and habits accompanying us through our days. How and why do we acquire such things? How much of the acquisition is conscious rather than unconscious, and how heavily are we influenced by the people around us and their stories, beliefs and habits?
It seems to me the vast majority of our mental clutter is carelessly acquired or thrust upon us as an obligation. We humans are powerful in our ability to absorb influence, and we’re fatally prone to addiction. Our consumer culture has exploited these weaknesses mercilessly, from alcohol, sugar and cigarettes to video games, social media and the Internet. The media grooms us from childhood to be mindless recipients of stimulation to buy, to believe and to comply.
Critical thinking is unfashionable, to say the least. I look around me and see shriveled attention spans. Fewer and fewer people seem to respect or even recognize peer-reviewed, verifiable, fact-based science from the idiotic and ignorant ravings of malcontents, manipulators and madmen who peddle hatred, bigotry and misinformation to the masses from television, radio, the internet and social media.
Thus, we’re positioned, mouths agape, eyes reflecting the sparkle and shine of baubles and distractions, minds numb, stumbling through life with one eye on some kind of a screen at all times, while words and assertions assault us from every direction from thousands of gaping mouths and talking heads and millions of busy fingers.
Mindfulness? You’re kidding. Who has the time, quiet and space to even think about what mindfulness means, let alone practice it? How many people feel that the only way they can face their life is to avoid mindfulness at all costs?
Decluttering a closet is one thing. Can we sort through our ideas and habits and discard what’s unattractive, outgrown, outdated or worn out? It’s agonizing to consider a piece of clothing, especially a costly one that seemed like such an exciting deal when we got it, and realize we don’t wear it, don’t like it or it doesn’t go with anything else we wear. We’ve invested money in that item. It’s in good shape and of good quality. We can’t just discard it. What a waste! We’ll never get our investment back out of it.
Ideas, habits and beliefs are even harder to walk away from. We might not have spent money in acquiring them, but they tie us to our tribe, our workplace, our church, our family and our community. They influence our favorite social media platforms, our news and radio purveyors and our identities. Our addictions cement us into communities of other addicts, or at least into communities which enable our addictions.
We know everything about holding on: holding on to power; holding on to identity; holding on to our beliefs; holding on to stuff, either because we want to or someone else expects us to; holding on to grievance, outrage and fear. What we don’t seem to understand is how holding on locks us into place. We can’t grow. We refuse to learn. Fear has killed our natural curiosity and drive to explore.
On the other hand, a willingness to discard any object or intangible in our lives, if necessary, means we consent to grow, change, learn and be flexible and resilient.
Mindful acquisition is a conscious activity, an agreement we make with ourselves to buy that new item or explore a new idea or relationship, fully prepared to walk away if the item, idea or relationship become, at any time, a detriment rather than an asset.
It’s easy to think about objects in terms of money. Beliefs and habits are less concrete, yet our habits cost us far, far more than what we lose when we discard an expensive coat we just don’t wear. Talk to anyone who has tried to be in relationship with a workaholic or a substance, screen or gamer addict about the cost of our behavior. Money is, after all, only a symbol of value we agree to use. Our intangible clutter costs us relationships, connection, our health and sometimes our lives.
At first look, it seems being willing to walk away from relationships weakens our ability to connect. In fact, I think in the long run it strengthens healthy bonds. If I know both I and the other party are prepared to walk away, I’m responsible for making a choice, over and over again, to stay, nurture and invest in a healthy connection — for both of us.
Practicing mindful acquisition requires me to pay close attention to the thoughts, beliefs, ideas and habits I give time and energy to or consider adopting. Do they increase my power and joy or diminish it? How does my mental and emotional clutter interact with my relationships and ability to communicate and contribute? How do these intangibles affect my heath and energy?
The irritating thing about personal power management is that it takes work and mindfulness. We can’t stay asleep at the wheel. Sure, reclaiming our stolen, lost or dormant power is a rush, but then we have to be responsible for our needs, priorities and choices, choices about what enters our lives and choices about what we discard or walk away from.
Our lives are limited. At 55, I’m beginning to feel the edges. I want to minimize my clutter, from items to intangibles. I want to let light and space into my home and serenity and clarity into my head and heart. I want to feel the flow of energy in the form of money, love and creativity without distraction.