Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.
It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.
“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.
The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.
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I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?
Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?
I’ve written a series of posts about happiness, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, PhD. I went back and reread those posts.
Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?
Are ordinary people happy?
Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?
I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.
Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.
(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)
I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.
Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.
But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.
It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow it and take the time to be present in the moment.
When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.
Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.
The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.
Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.
Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.
Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?
That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?
Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.
Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?
But we could change our minds.
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Convenience: The state of being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty (online Oxford Dictionary).
It’s a frigid winter morning here in central Maine with a wind chill taking us into double-digit negative temperatures and a big winter storm approaching. I’m wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my attic aerie in the thin winter sunshine, listening to the wind and thinking about convenience.
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash
The weather is inconvenient. I was hoping to load up the car for another trip to storage, but the wind chill is dangerous. Frostbite can occur in 10 minutes at these temperatures. The wind and cold have polished the ice and snow in our driveway to a slippery gloss, unforgiving as concrete. Nothing about the sound of the wind or the house creaking in the cold makes me want to leave my cozy blanket and chair and go out.
I think I’ll have another cup of tea instead.
I’ve never lived in a really old house before I came to Maine. The farmhouse we’re in now is 200 years old, and the house we’re in the process of trying to buy is more than 100 years old. I’ve learned, since I came here, to expect these old places to be less convenient in terms of closet space, ceiling height, finished basements, upstairs heat, and bathrooms than more modern homes.
Without considering it, I’ve always assigned a negative feeling to inconvenience. I read a few sentences from Seth Godin this week that made me think hard about the meaning and implications of convenience.
Looking at the definition above, I immediately notice how subjective it is. What may be entirely convenient for me can be ridiculously inconvenient for someone else, and vice versa. This is a challenge in my primary relationship. My partner cares a lot about convenience – his own. However, our ideas about what’s functional and workable are frequently quite different.
So here’s my first set of questions: where is the line between convenience and laziness? Is there a line? Should there be a line?
Godin opines that people will trade privacy and money for convenience, and I know from my own experience we sometimes behave as if we value convenience over relationships.
That seems wrong to me. Do we really care more about our own convenience – where things are kept, how we manage recycling and trash, how to load a dishwasher, how to position a roll of paper towels or toilet paper, how to iron a shirt – than our relationships?
Have I ever done that?
No, of course not!
I have certainly received that message from others: I care more about having it my way than I do about you.
At the other end of the spectrum, I will say without hesitation there are certain “inconveniences” nobody should tolerate. Like being systematically abused or bullied, or ignoring a chronic issue that’s dangerous or a health concern. A car with a broken hatch or door that flies open while driving, for example, is more than an inconvenience.
Do we tolerate those kinds of things because it’s more inconvenient to deal with them than it is to live with them?
Speaking for myself, the answer is maybe. I will, and have, and do, tolerate constant small inconveniences because I value relationship more than my own comfort (not necessarily a healthy thing, especially when unreciprocated), and I find conflict and tension so unbearably inconvenient. I’d rather deal with my slow accumulation of resentment than stand up for what I find convenient in the context of a relationship and risk friction.
As I said, convenience is so subjective it’s hard to get on the same page in terms of discussing it. Convenience works in the shadows. We don’t talk or think about it directly. How many unconscious decisions a day do we make in an effort to make our busy, noisy lives more convenient, never counting the cost to ourselves or those around us?
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The cost of convenience. Not only monetary cost, but time, energy, social, environmental costs. Cars are indispensable for most of us. If we don’t have our own, we have access to some kind of mass transit. But we pay for our cars, and the planet suffers for them. Plastic is unbelievably convenient. It’s also choking the planet to death.
Convenience is a moving target. Having to walk through a big house to the one bathroom is not as convenient as an en suite bathroom, but it sure beats having to go out to the outhouse! When do we have enough convenience? When are we satisified with our privileges?
At what point have we taken convenience too far? How do we persuade ourselves and others to accept something more inconvenient but healthier and more sustainable for everyone, including the planet?
Undeniably, our search for more convenience has motivated countless amazing technological and design breakthroughs. Our desire for convenience can fuel our adaptability and resilience, our creativity, and underpins movements like minimalism.
But are we entitled to demand ever-increasing convenience from the world and those around us? Do we have a right to encounter no difficulty, have to make no effort?
Absolutely not. Because our convenience may be creating inconvenience for someone else, which they may or may not express. For me, this boils down to what I’ve learned about needs: My needs are as important but not more important than anyone else’s.
My convenience is as important but not more important than anyone else’s. None of us can escape others, not in this crowded world. And that means we’re all going to encounter difficulty and we’re all going to have make an effort, whether it’s convenient or not. Inevitably, some of us will make more effort than others, and it’s up to those hard-working people (emotional labor, anyone?) to refrain from enabling others in a quest for total convenience.
Perhaps inconvenience, like discomfort, is not negative at all. Maybe it shapes us in powerful, positive ways, helping us stay creative and flexible, reminding us to stay present with our true priorities and whether our actions reflect them.
Sometimes we’re going to have to change our plans to accommodate the weather.
Sometimes we’re going to have to walk through a couple of rooms or down the stairs to use our bathroom.
Sometimes we’re going to have to deal with the inconvenience of other people or pets.
We can choose convenience over all the rest. We can. But, as Godin reminds me, some things, and some people, are worth a little inconvenience. Or even a lot.
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All my life I’ve felt traumatized by how frequently I’ve moved house. My general insecurity makes uprooting myself a fearful ordeal.
Maine Farmhouse and Barn
This time, as we go through the process of selling this old farm and searching for a new place, I’m realizing for the first time how valuable my experience of moving is. My resentment about it is falling away.
I know most people approach finding a new home from the will-this-place-suit-me direction, and that’s probably practical and sensible. I can and have done that many times, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about whether I will suit the new place, and being curious about how I might fit my life into it rather than forcing it to accommodate me.
I do this because, as I’m realizing now, every place I’ve lived has changed me, challenged me, and shown me new aspects of myself. I’ve never had much money and therefore been unable to have a wide choice or completely renovate, so I’ve learned to adapt and adjust to wherever I am. For the first time in my life, I’m seeing what strength and power lie in that kind of resilience.
I’ve lived in homes, apartments, dorms, a trailer, a log cabin, and my parents’ home (as an adult). I’ve rented and I’ve owned, bought and sold, and been a landlady. I’ve lived with husbands, my kids, assorted animals, and friends. I’ve lived by myself. I’ve lived in large places with ample storage and closets and small places with one closet in the entire house.
Now, as I approach my 60s, I think I know a lot about what I need, what’s important, and how adaptable I am. Of course, I thought that at 50 when I came to Maine, but this old farmhouse taught me a great deal more. And the new house will teach me yet more. During my time in this house, I also became a minimalist, which has had a huge impact on my priorities and the amount of stuff I manage.
Leaving the place I know, no matter what this house’s challenges, is hard. I am, at least, familiar with the current problems and challenges. But I also know what I love; I’m already grieving the loss of this beautiful 26 acres, the gardens, the wildlife, the views out the windows, the way the sun comes into my little attic aerie, and the shrill spring song of the peepers in the pond.
I realize, however, that the next place I live will present me with new joys. I don’t know what they will be. They won’t be exactly like what I’m leaving. But a new space holds new possibilities and new discoveries, along with fresh challenges.
The thing about limits and challenges is the opportunity they hold. I’m excited by the prospect of creatively solving problems I encounter. One of the good things about having little financial resource is that I’ve been forced to rely on creative, low-cost solutions. If one doesn’t have money to throw at problems, one has to find another way.
Finding another way has always been a journey worth taking for me, a journey into my own power, ability, and creativity. Without the help of abundant money, it can seem like a long, slow, journey, uncomfortable and occasionally even tortuous, but filled with discovery and satisfaction. The new space and I will work together to make something functional and beautiful. We’ll find out about one another. We’ll take care of one another.
We’ll make a new home together.
Jenny’s attic is waiting for her. Fall, 2014
A week before Christmas, this from Joshua Fields Millburn came to my Inbox. Then, a couple of days later, I read this edgy piece by Tina Lear about erasing our future.
I’ve been thinking about these two pieces of writing as I clean out cupboards, pack, and work on finding a temporary storage unit to help smooth the process of moving house.
To outsource is to obtain something from an outside source. I loved Millburn’s article about outsourcing our happiness because I’ve noticed this, too. We outsource our success. We outsource our sense of style and beauty. We outsource our power in all kinds of ways. We don’t even notice we’re doing it most of the time. What it really amounts to is permanently putting ourselves behind bars.
I had an interaction recently at work that perfectly illustrated outsourcing our power. It was the end of a 10-hour day. I was tired. We were trying to close the pool, which requires several complicated chemical and maintenance tasks. We had some late swimmers we were working around. A woman walked in asking for information about joining. I launched into our well-rehearsed spiel about paperwork, reservations, COVID precautions, and our policies and procedures.
Our population is mostly elderly, and this woman was grey-haired. There’s a lot of information to absorb, and we’re used to people being confused or anxious and needing to ask several questions. We can also anticipate problems with filling out the paperwork correctly, so we show newcomers all the places they’ll need to sign, date, and initial.
She interrupted me abruptly in midflow, saying she was busy and didn’t have time for all this. She didn’t smile. I shut up, handed her the paperwork, and thanked her for coming by. She left and I went back to what I had been doing. I was busy, too.
A half an hour later, on the way home, I realized I was upset. I went back over the interaction to figure out where it had gone wrong. I rarely have interactions like this. I’m usually good with people. Had I said or done something wrong? Had I been impatient or unhelpful or unpleasant in some way?
All at once, I felt as though I’d had a “bad” day at work. I’d screwed it up. It hadn’t gone well.
I had Failed To Please someone. The worst thing that can possibly happen.
I realized, of course, it wasn’t about me. This woman is a stranger. She doesn’t know me well enough to dislike me. I knew I was being oversensitive and I let it go.
She came in a few days later to swim, which means she took her mask off. I recognized her immediately, though she took no notice of me. I watched her as I guarded and noted, once again, how attractive she is. I also noticed how sad she looked. She’s got beautiful bone structure, but she has an air of iron self-control and her face in repose as she enjoyed the warm therapy pool was stoic, her mouth secretive and folded in upon itself. She looks as though she’s suffered in her life, and is determined to bear it with dignity.
It takes one to know one, I thought to myself.
That thirty seconds of interaction with a stranger tilted my whole day. In a moment, I lost my sense of competence and confidence. One interaction erased all the dozens of positive interactions I had and all the things I did right over my 10-hour shift and before.
This is outsourcing our satisfaction and happiness with ourselves and our lives. It puts our power outside us, into the hands of someone else. It doesn’t matter if the someone else is a loved one or stranger.
The second article, by Tina Lear, suggests we consider erasing our stories about the future. She’s coming at it from a minimalist perspective. She realized she was keeping lots of things “in case.” In case collapse comes. In case the power grid fails. In case we suddenly become different people. In case we lose weight. In case things come back into fashion. In case we suddenly love doing something we’ve already tried doing and didn’t love.
This is a big one for me. I always want to be prepared for anything. If I’d had the money and focus, I’d have been a prepper.
I don’t think being prepared is bad. Not at all. In fact, my partner and I are having considerable friction right now around preparing to move. I want to do a little cleaning, a little packing, a little organizing every day. He’s not interested. He won’t be interested until his back is against the wall and then he’ll begin taking action. I can’t work that way. He drives me nuts. He thinks I’m exhausting myself for no reason.
Aren’t relationships fun?
Anyway, Lear is right. When is the future ever what we think it will be? We can’t prepare for all eventualities. (Didn’t I just write something about leaping?) What we can do is be sure we don’t outsource our happiness, our confidence, our sense of self. We can be on our own side. We can validate ourselves and cheer ourselves on when we need it. We can love ourselves, even in the moments when it seems no one else does. Especially in the moments when it seems no one else does.
We can stop scaring ourselves with stories about what might happen in the future and trust we’ll survive and thrive, no matter what does happen, because we haven’t outsourced our happiness, our confidence, or our competence. We may have discarded something we suddenly need, but how serious is that, really? We can buy another. We can borrow it. We can use something else. The sky won’t fall. We’ll figure it out.
Life will go on. Let us be in charge of our own lives rather than outsourcing them to someone else.
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Asking the right question is powerful. Answering it honestly is a superpower. Good questions unlock doors and windows in our minds and hearts, and honest answers allow light into dark, dank, haunted places within us.
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For me, part of the magic of good questions is the challenge to think bigger and more creatively. Questions help me focus on problem-solving.
Life is all about problem-solving.
So, here are three questions. The first is from Joshua Becker on Becoming Minimalist. The others were inspired by his post:
- If I didn’t have this thing, what would I use instead?
- If I wasn’t doing this activity, what would I do instead?
- If I wasn’t investing my time, energy, and power here, where would I invest them instead?
In the first questions, the thing, whatever it is, may be something you’re not using in the first place. But if you are, or you think you are, or you have, or you think you might need to sometime in the future, ask yourself if you didn’t have it, what would you use in place of it?
If I didn’t have this apple corer, what would I use instead?
A good kitchen knife is multipurpose. An apple corer is not.
If I didn’t have a TV habit, what could I do instead?
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Spend actual face-to-face time with someone. Read a book. Take a walk. Play with pets. Exercise. Play a game. Go outside.
If I wasn’t consumed and exhausted by stress, anxiety, toxic mimics, or unhealthy relationships, what could I have energy for?
Creativity. Spirituality. Learning. Healing. Growth. Healthy connections. Rest.
I don’t suggest a ban on apple corers or TV. These questions are not weapons with which to make ourselves bad and wrong. The point is that asking the questions reminds us we are making choices and gives us a chance to consider whether or not our choices are adding value to our lives and taking us in the direction we want to go.
Do we really need a bigger kitchen to house our collection of apple corers and other gidgets and gadgets that do the work of a good knife?
Do we really need three, or six, or nine different streaming services and a steady diet of however many hours of TV a day?
If we ask and answer these questions intermittently during our day, what might we learn about which activities and objects are useful and valuable and which are not? How would our relationships look through the lens of these questions, beginning with our relationship with ourselves?
How could we engage with subtractive problem-solving?
I would rather have one multipurpose object, tool, or activity than several specialized ones. Simple is easy. Simple is clear. Simple takes less time, money, space, and energy.
Here’s the downside of good questions requiring honest answers:
We might not like the answers.
If we ask, if we answer, we may find out things we don’t want to know, which might be why we’re unconsciously busy spinning our wheels in the first place.
This is the old French story about Bluebeard. Once his young wife looked in the forbidden room and saw all his former headless brides, she couldn’t unsee it. There was no going back.
This kind of self-inquiry is a choice. We may not want to. We may not be willing to. That’s OK. Life has a way of increasing the pressure until we are forced to go in the direction of our fear and resistance. On the other hand, maybe you’re a person with no emotional, physical, or thought clutter. Maybe you have no time-wasting coping mechanisms and habits. Maybe your kitchen drawers are clean, functional, mouse free, and contain nothing but a few useful multipurpose tools you use regularly. Maybe all your relationships are perfectly healthy. Good for you! I’m jealous.
My life (and my kitchen) is messier than that. I spend too much time and energy in non-useful activities, and even more time and energy being hard on myself for it. I worry, and make up stories, and work hard to stay defended and hidden.
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If I didn’t spend time playing online solitaire in an effort to manage uncomfortable feelings or fatigue, what could I do? Write? Take a walk? Relax with a book? Dance? Journal? Talk to a friend? Scrub a floor?
It’s not that solitaire is necessarily bad. The question is, would another activity be better? A walk takes care of exercise; spending time outside; and spending undistracted time with myself or a friend, pet, or loved one. A walk is a multipurpose activity. Solitaire is not.
I need a good kitchen knife. I need to be outside and exercise.
Do I need an apple corer and online solitaire?
(Well, no. But maybe I want them. That apple corer is mine (this is called the endowment effect). I paid good money for it! Maybe I used it once. Maybe I’ll use it again one day. I deserve to relax and take a break now and then. Solitaire is better than TV or a social media habit. It doesn’t hurt anyone. I need some downtime in my day.)
I’m not here to argue with you. I want you to have what you need. I want what I need, too.
Just asking the questions!
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