Marshmallow Cocoon

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What stops us from doing what we know is right? Why, when we profess to endorse a belief, value or idea, are we unable to embody it. Most of us hold ideals and whilst living up to these ideals can be challenging, why are we unable to try? What is the personal cost of falling short of our ideals on a daily basis?

Are we sickened inside that we are less than we think we should try to be? Do we feel a sense of disappointment in ourselves as we reach the end of another day that saw us fall short of even trying? I don’t think so. In reality, I suspect most of us greet dusk by taking refuge in our couches, turning the television on and stuffing sugar or wine down our throats until we can’t think at all. Is it possible that if we all tried harder to act in ways that we knew were right, that instead of blocking our true selves out by escaping into our marshmallow cocoons, we just might reach the end of the day feeling a rewarding sense of achievement?

I know that many people profess to just not caring about much beyond their own immediate wants and needs. Taking on that kind of apathy is beyond my abilities and to these people I send heartfelt wishes that they may one day make room for more than their own self interest. I’m speaking instead to those of us that profess to give a damn. If you can name one or two beliefs that you hold dear, express concern over a couple of issues facing the world today or show a healthy interest in what constitutes right or wrong, then you are capable of doing something with your thoughts beyond just thinking them.

So why don’t we? Whilst we enjoy passionate debate at dinner parties about what’s wrong with the state of the world, quote facts about world poverty and profess to be committed to social justice and equality, not many of us manage to do anything beyond publicly raging over a glass or two of red. Instead, we come up with lots of justifications for why we can’t do what we know we should.

We’re too exhausted to volunteer and anyway, our own families need us. We really are planning on setting up a regular donation to a charity, but we want to get our credit card balances down first. After we buy this new outfit, we’ll stop spending money on clothes we don’t need, honest, we will. We know that eating meat causes suffering, but we just can’t give up our favourite meal. We didn’t mean to spend an hour gossiping about our colleague, it just sort of happened. Next week will be a better time to stop smoking and start exercising. Just not now. Not this moment. In some unspecified future tense, we all pledge to start being the people we want to be and in the process we run so far away from ourselves that we don’t even remember who we believed we could be.

Like some giant global excuse note, we’ve given ourselves a free pass to acting dishonourably. We’ve all gone soft on ourselves. In our justifications, we all sound the same. I’m doing my best. I’m just going to be kind on myself. I’m not going to beat myself up. I deserve it. I’m moving on. I tried once. I can’t be bothered. I’m on a journey. I don’t care anymore. This is who I am. Although self flagellation is undoubtedly self indulgent, isn’t it time we got a little tough on ourselves? Turned off the distractions and the justifications and spent some time with the vision of who we believe we can be – and started on the path to being that person?

Why is it so hard to try? I don’t believe it is. I believe the real resistance is that we fear meeting the reality of ourselves head on. If we take the time to think through what we value and believe, and how we ought to be living to embody what we know to be right, we may just discover that we are not making the choices we want to be making. That we are falling well short of our ideal. Having a quick lump of chocolate and a couple of wines keeps the doubts at bay and blurs the edges enough to make them fade away.

It’s painful to examine our shortcomings. For some of us, to do so is to enter a very dark place that we fear we won’t emerge from. Self loathing is a quick sand coat that can wrap itself around us and pull us further and further from the ability to take any kind of action. Hating ourselves may be even less productive than losing ourselves in intoxicants of one kind or another, but self knowledge is never a bad thing, and entering the dark is necessary if we plan to eventually walk in the light.

We’d much rather feel good than bear the discomfort of knowing how far short we fall of our ideal. Addicted to instant gratification and feel good pleasure bites, we reward ourselves constantly and begin anew the search for our next gold star goody. Like vigilant parents protecting our children from the pain of negative emotion, we arrest our dis-ease before it arises by saturating it with a hit of feel good attitude. I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all just fine.

Only we’re not. Here’s an experiment for you. For the next month, cut out alcohol. If you’re an out of control shopper, stop. Stop smoking and eating rubbish food. Stop gossiping. I’m not suggesting you stop having fun for a month, just that you take a break from anything in your life that you suspect you are relying on to make it through the week. By all means keep doing the good stuff. Keep exercising, meeting up with friends or whatever you do that’s a healthy way for you to de-stress. Just remove the quick fix junk that allows you to take a break from yourself.

The insights possible from this experience are many. You may find that it turns out you don’t have the skills to manage conflict, disappointment or even mild discomfort.

After the first couple of weeks, a nagging sense of discontent might begin to arise that prompts you to wonder if there shouldn’t be more to your existence than there currently is. It might turn out that being sober, aware and awake to your reality allows you to notice that all is not right with the choices you are making. And it’s at that moment that the whole exercise becomes worthwhile.

By taking away all the things we use to distance ourselves from the realities of our lives, we force open a portal of potential. Although it’s probably possible to open this portal without the suffering of withdrawing our pet rewards, it’s more likely that we’ll stay lost instead in our justifications and pleasure domes and never really get there. In order to be all that we want to be, we must first know who we are without the distractions and illusions.

We must make the space to ask ourselves what we want our lives to be. Although this process is a little horrid, I wouldn’t want you to think that it’s not worth the discomfort. Sure, you might not like what you find. You might realise that you were not really living in your life so much as medicating yourself from the side lines. But it is from this self knowledge that we are able to begin to build a life well lived. We have to see the justifications we use to stop doing what we know is right, before we are able to start the work of removing them. If we don’t, we run the risk of either being in a state of constant disappointment in ourselves or raising our glasses to each other for yet another collective ‘cheers’ to the soft state reality we mistake for real living.

I’m not suggesting it’s possible to be perfect. I’m not. I will never be. But it is possible to make some hard choices to try to bring our actions into alignment with what we think is right. If you are putting your own small pleasures ahead of the real good you can do in the world, you are not being all that you can be. If it’s too hard and you know you should, but just not today please because you tried it once and it sort of sucked – try again.

Who are we to think that we have the right to defer our goodwill for a future time when we’re feeling better about it? In the meantime, while we wait for the stars to align, people are suffering as a result of our inaction. If we need further motivation to take our brand new high heels and kick ourselves to action, it’s not difficult to find it. Consider this. Each year, 10 million children die of poverty related diseases. It takes around $200 US dollars to save a child’s life in the developing world. How much was your new handbag? Don’t you already have three perfectly fine handbags?

Around the world, one child dies of hunger related causes every five seconds and yet there is plenty of food to feed all of the people on the planet, if we just produced it more efficiently. Did you know that we get back one kilogram of beef for every thirteen kilograms of grain it takes to feed a cow? If we took that thirteen kilograms of grain and fed it instead to the world’s hungry, than we have more than enough food to go around. But you enjoy your steak tonight, go ahead, you deserve it. Despite the fact that many children go to sleep hungry, the annual cost of obesity in Australia is estimated at $3.7 billion. Why don’t these facts spur us into immediate action? Why aren’t they enough to make us move forward boldly to do as we wish we could?

The answer to that is undoubtedly complex and perhaps in the end just not knowable. Perhaps some people just don’t care about the problems they cannot see. But if you do care, if you’re one of the people that knows in your bones that you can and should be doing more to align your beliefs with your actions, then you must. Aside from the benefits your actions will bring to others, you will find that the rewards for yourself are rich and real. Bringing ourselves in alignment with our visions of who we want to be might take courage and commitment.

It might ask us to sacrifice some of the small pleasures we show a preference for, in pursuit of greater gains for the wider world. Instead of giving our struggles and justifications permission to de-rail the work of reaching our ideals, we must embrace the discomfort of re-scripting our actions so that we can begin the work of living a life well lived.

A year of abundance and why it’s not enough

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There’s something unsettling about money to spend. I’m not referring to the money we need to cover our essentials like food, rent, clothing or even the odd coffee or dvd hire. I’m talking about amounts above and beyond our needs. I believe it’s called ‘discretionary income’.

After a decade or so of having absolutely none due to being in that financial vacuum known as motherhood and studentdom, I had fantasised about how joyful the experience of having left over money at the end of each pay check would be. With money in my pocket, I envisioned a life made easier. Surely, more money would mean more happiness?

And to a point, it did. Having finally emerged from my decade of lack, I graduated with a professional qualification and a salary to match. Over the last twelve months I’ve been in a position to compare and contrast the experience of only just managing to make ends meet to having a discretionary income that I was free to do with as I pleased. Despite my predictions of increased happiness and growing joy, the experience has left me unsettled and somewhat frayed.

I won’t argue that having enough money to comfortably cover all of your expenses, buy the odd unneeded but much wanted item or saving for a holiday or a rainy day does not bring a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. It does. After years of relying on my partner or Centrelink or in emergency situations, my very generous mother, the ability to self-support is a wonderful and necessary thing. I would not give it up for anything.

But it’s what we do with the rest of our money that makes me uneasy. And for most of us working full time professional jobs in Australia, no matter how much we may whine about lack of money, there is enough left after paying for our essentials and not so essentials to do with as we please.

I should mention here that my professional qualification is in Social Work, and you’d be right to infer that as a Social Worker, I tend to have a healthy interest in lofty ideals like social justice, equality and the right for all people to live a dignified life. I read books about world poverty, I listen to Radio National and I prefer to buy Christmas gifts from Oxfam than from major department stores.

I know that my values and beliefs have played a major role in my feelings about how I spend my money, but even so, consumerism is a slippery slope that the most committed anti-shoppers amongst us can gradually find ourselves sailing down. After twelve months of having money left over, I can attest to how difficult it is to resist the temptations of a society which not only encourages us to spend, but informs us that it’s our duty to keep buying up big if we are to keep our economy buzzing along in the right direction.

It’s been both amusing and alarming to chart my relationship with abundance over the course of the last twelve months. By doing so, I’ve gained some life changing insights into my relationship with money that I think are worth sharing.

I spent the first two months of my new improved pay scale replacing and repairing all those items that I had neglected over the past decade. I fixed the washing machine. I rented a new television. I threw out all my underwear with holes and bought replacements. I serviced my car and took my daughter shopping. I subscribed to two magazines, visited the dentist and bought a home water filter system.

This felt good. Who doesn’t feel better in underpants without holes in them? I did all this, but I still had money left over each fortnight. The next couple of months I upgraded my mobile phone, bought new clothes and started saving for an overseas holiday. And I still had money left over. I began to take notice of the junk mail catalogues and to look in the shops that I had previously walked right past. I noticed lots of pretty things and started telling myself that I could have it if I wanted it. After all, I’d worked for it.

So I bought some more new clothes. As a jigsaw puzzle lover, I had previously bought or been gifted one or two puzzles a year. Now I could buy one as soon as I finished one, turning the area under my bed into a used jigsaw puzzle graveyard. Whilst I did not overcommit my funds or wantonly purchase big items I had no real use for, I did considerably grow the amount of ‘stuff’ that came through my door.

About eight months into my newfound financial freedom, I began to feel a sense of unease. I couldn’t really articulate why, but something felt wrong about the situation. I don’t think I was really ready to address why I was feeling uneasy at this point, but I did decide to engage a financial planner to try and make some smart decisions about my money.

This turned out to be an excellent idea and helped me to feel that I was in control of my money and not the other way round. Plans were made and mostly stuck to. My holiday savings were growing nicely and I made a small investment. Still my unease did not go away. I wondered why working for my money and then being able to spend it on stuff I wanted, did not really make me feel any better.

Sitting down to yet another new jigsaw, I realised that there was something about abundance that had reduced the quality my experiences. My one or two puzzles a year were always so enjoyed – treasured even. Now that I could do as many as I liked, I found I liked each one just a little less. On the rare occasions I had been able to afford a new item of clothing, I had worn it feeling like a queen. Now that I had several new clothes, I did not savour the experience of putting on a new dress in quite the same way. I got less satisfaction out of my five new pairs of underwear than I did from the one new pair I had previously been able to buy.

And worryingly, I felt that anytime I left the house I was unconsciously in a state of ‘scanning’ for possible purchases. Window-shopping had been replaced by purchasing and I felt that in the process, I had lost something more valuable than money itself.

This shouldn’t have surprised me as I have many books about happiness and what contributes to it and what doesn’t. I know that rampant consumerism does not increase personal happiness and that there is more joy to be had in giving than in receiving. I know that the cycle of ‘work, buy, work’ does not bring lasting rewards.

Further, I know that in a world full of real poverty, the kind that kills through lack of access to basic nutrition and clean drinking water that growing my ‘stuff’ is both unethical and amoral. As the end of the first year of my financial abundance draws to a close, I think it was perhaps this knowledge that began to rise to the surface, nagging me that I was in danger of entering into a bargain with the economy that would neither make me feel good about myself nor do anything to address the bigger picture.

It was around this time that I had considered a change in my employment that would see me embark on another period of study. Looking down the barrel of a three or four year PhD meant certain reduction in my financial situation. What would it be like to have less again? Surprisingly, I found that considering the idea did not put me off, but rather excited me.

I want to point out that it’s important for me to ensure that I am financially independent and able to provide for my daughter and that I had no intention of taking on further study if it meant that either of these things were in jeopardy. I found that I could consider studying and still have enough for what I need. I would not however, have enough for what I want. And that’s really the crux of the matter.

The difference between need and want has become so blurred, that many of us have no idea what it is. I’m suggesting that we would all benefit from spending some time deciding what for us is a reasonable need and what is just a passing want. I walk around the shops and I see that we are all out of control. Like five years olds demanding that our parents buy us some piece of plastic that we will cherish for thirty seconds and then forget about, we seem to think that a moments fleeting (and costly) satisfaction is worth more than the pursuit of more lasting joys.

I don’t know if we’re all trying to fill up voids in our lives, use new shoes as band-aides for some internal pain or whether we are just so apathetic about our world that we really don’t care much. Whatever the reason, I personally can’t do it anymore.

Driven by the need to make change, I’ve drawn up a list of all the things I ‘need’, and I’ve given myself plenty of leeway, going beyond the absolute necessities like shelter and food, to include those items that enrich my experience of living. Books are on my list and so are movies. They bring me joy and promote learning. I’ve also included paying for a hobby, as it connects me with my community and helps me to exercise and de-stress. I’ve even budgeted for coffee, as I’m sure those amongst you who are caffeine fans will concur, that for the minimal cost of a coffee, much pleasure can be had!

However, I have decided that buying five coffees a week is my limit and that I really don’t need jumbo sized ones. My point is that by examining the differences between what I want and what I need, I’m not depriving myself. I’m just limiting myself to those experiences that I believe allow me to enjoy myself without becoming lost on the ‘purchase til I perish’ treadmill.

Everybody’s list of what they need will be different. Some people may be able to strip it right back to the essentials and to these people, I bow deeply. To those of you who would argue that you need those new shoes each month or can’t do without that monthly trip to the solarium or nail salon, I would suggest that you can and you should and here’s why.

To begin with, once you address what you really need and stop buying the things that you think you need but actually you don’t, you will find that your relationship to what you have changes. After deciding on my course of action, I have spent the last month ‘not buying it’. The result has been that I absolutely savour those five cups of coffee each week in a way that I never did when I let myself have as many as I want.

I’m in no way worse off from by my reduction in purchasing. On the contrary, I feel better. Even so, resisting hasn’t always been easy and it’s been fascinating to watch the withdrawal symptoms. I’ve had lots of thoughts pop into my head to rationalise why it would be okay to have that sixth cup of coffee this week, or why I really should have put buying a Bollywood Film magazine on my ‘need’ list, but so far I’ve managed to stop myself.

The way I’ve done this is by recalling the following fact that I read recently in a book. In 2007, 10 million children under the age of five died of poverty related diseases and that one such death can be prevented at a cost of around $200 US dollars (Singer 2009). Which brings me to my second argument for why you should get off the shopping merry go round. If you reduce the spending of your discretionary income, you’ll have money left over to make a very real difference with.

If at this point you’re still reading this, having not been turned off by the thought that you can’t possibly give up your trips to the nail salon, I’m hoping that you are at least open to the idea that we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that in a world where nobody needs to die because of poverty – that nobody does.

My own experience has been a powerful one and I’m grateful that I was able to learn from it before being sucked into a lifetime of spending and the discontent that accompanies such a journey. I know that there will be times that I will fall short of my intentions and find myself walking out of a shop holding a brand new purchase and wondering what just happened. It’s hard to ignore the constant advertising and to combat the desires that seem to arise uninvited.

On reflection, I realise that it was not enough for me to know that I should resist the temptation of consumerism and instead use my excess to contribute to solutions for the problems that really matter. Apart from a few donations to persistent charities over the last year, I did not give significantly. It wasn’t until I realised that my personal sense of enjoyment and satisfaction was being eroded by my ability to buy plenty that I began to look for another way.

It has taken a selfish motivation to spur me on to change. I don’t want a wardrobe full of clothes when one or two new items a year bring me more joy. I don’t want a jigsaw puzzle graveyard under my bed when a couple of puzzles a year are more fun. I don’t want to have my every excursion plagued with an undercurrent of latent hunting that sees me scanning for objects of desire.  I don’t want a lifetime of working-spending-working that does little more than invite a mountain of stuff into my house that buries me and my values until all that’s left is a memory of someone who once dreamed bigger dreams. That is not a life well lived.

What I’m saying is of course nothing new. Encouragingly, of late there’s been growing discussion on how the path to abundance in the West has come at a cost. That we are somehow ‘less’ as a result of the experience of having more than we could possibly need. My year has shown me that this is true and I know that I must turn away before I get hooked.

I invite everyone to take a moment to consider what life could be like if it was lived more simply. To wonder what it is that allows us to keep purchasing when we know that we could use that money instead to contribute to saving a life. What sort of mechanisms do we employ to remain ignorant and uncaring? What does distancing ourselves from the realities of global suffering cost us as individuals? If we are faced with the choice of having an expensive hair cut or saving a child’s life, who amongst us would not save the life if we knew we could?

Then why don’t we? How do we justify being part of the problem and not part of the solution? These are hard questions to ask ourselves, but to ignore them makes us in some way less human than we are capable of being.

I leave behind my well paid job and enter into a period of less income knowing that it’s okay to have less money, if what you have instead is worth more than all of the riches in the world.