“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Doing Without

Earlier this year I bought 5 litres of extra virgin olive oil.  I love olive oil, and apparently extra virgin is the best kind.  I don't know what "extra virgin" really means, or how the addition of further virgins improves the quality of the oil; but it's usually more expensive, and that usually means it's better.


I've nearly run out now.  Therefore I should buy some more.  What if I don't?  Then I won't be able to eat fried rice any more.  I really like fried rice.  Never mind, I can do without.

Simple thoughts flicker through our minds all the time.  We don't pay them much attention because they're boring.  I think this can be a mistake.  The simple and the boring governs our lives.  Life is mundane and tedious.  You have to wash yourself and cut your hair.  You have to eat and go to the toilet.   You have to pay bills and read emails.  You have to go shopping.  You have to spend about one third of the day immobile and unconscious just to be able to function properly for the other two thirds.  Being a human can be annoying.

In pursuit of the simple life, I find myself coming back to simple thoughts.  My first principle in giving up my job was the idea that time is more valuable than money.  Only give up as much of the former as you have to in exchange for the latter.  Therefore the less money you need, the more time you can have.  Imagine not needing money at all!  You'd have all the time in the world.

But then the question is, what am I going to do with all this extra time?  Many people say they like having a job because it gives them something to do - not only that, but a sense of purpose, of being useful.  I've never been so lucky.  By nature I'm something of a cynic and a misanthrope, and very much a loner.  This is odd because I worked in health and social care for ten years: a career often described as "rewarding", despite its notoriously low pay and generally poor working conditions.  There's a lot to be said for that.  If you want to meet some truly compassionate, selfless and generous human beings, visit a care home for the elderly, mentally ill or severely learning disabled.  It's tough work, and the ones who really love it aren't there for the money.  But these are the people who deserve, if anybody does, the six and seven-figure salaries we give to people who kick footballs, ponce around under expensive haircuts and distract the very pennies from our pockets with tacky and frivolous tat in ever more subtle and insipid ways.  We don't live in a culture that really values compassion.  We live in a culture that values entertainment.  We live in a culture that is very, very sick.  However much of a positive and healing role you play inside that cultural system, you're still inside that system, and the overall good you achieve amounts, in effect, to zero.  What if all the effort putting into caring for the elderly and disabled, for example, was transferred into trying to cure them?  Or in refusing to submit so readily to the cruelties of nature, and preventing such things as illness and disability from rearing their heads in the first place?  We're on the cusp of an era in which such things might just become possible.  Assuming we have a planet left on which to live our new, healthier, longer superhuman lives, that is.  It's all a bit up in the air at the moment.  Still, the urge to step outside our cultural systems, our presuppositions, our habits, our comfort zones, is not something any of us should ignore.  I'm doing my best not to.

It's hard, so I'm starting small.  I revere those who can "make the break" so easily.  Most of us don't.  How many Christians have sold everything they own, given the money to the poor and gone to live the kind of lifestyle the founder of their faith tells them to?  How many of us of any faith or worldview, sensing something wrong with our materialistic way of life, have the guts to just leave it all behind and walk off into the wilderness that calls us?  Almost none.  For me just now, it's a question of whether I should buy another 5 litres of olive oil?  Yes, I'm daring to dream.  The answer is "no".  Fried rice is nice, but plain rice is nice enough.  I don't need to give up the hour or two it would take to earn the money to buy another 5 litres of olive oil.  Very soon, perhaps, nobody will.  I could be sitting in the glorious sunshine with my head in book.  I could be playing my ukulele.  The idea is, the more I can do without, the closer I get to the kind of life that's calling me.  I feel it's calling many other people too, but most of them, just like me, are weak and scared and lazy and human.  Let's take things slowly.  Let's give up working so much and find ways to start living more.  What do you really need?  What can you do without?