What is essential? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. What, out of the things that I own, do I actually need? How many of these things actually own me?
I blame these continued ruminations on watching “Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things.” For a documentary of which I don’t think all that highly, I have been thinking about it more than I care to admit. Last week, I wrote about how the concepts apply to my generation. This week, I’m dwelling on how it applies to me.
I’m thinking about suffering, in the Buddhist sense, though a Buddhist I am not. I’m just Joe from Jersey. I had a good, middle-class upbringing with two loving parents, both of whom are still with me, a sharp sister, lots of dogs and cats, and plenty of friends. But for some reason, despite all the good, I have this unshakable depression that’s been with me about as long as I can remember. Why?
After watching “Minimalism,” I’m starting to think a part of it is because I want too much shit. I was blown away by this speech (full version, greatest hits) by president Jimmy Carter, which appears in the documentary. The speech was recorded in 1979. The crisis of confidence Carter describes is virulent today.
We are a nation obsessed with things, and we forget that it’s community that got us here in the first place.
I’m in the middle of Walter Isaacson’s “Ben Franklin: An American Life,” and I’m blown away by how balanced and nuanced Franklin’s personal philosophy was between the importance of the individual and the importance of common good. We were once a nation that valued both. The man who made himself a fortune by more or less inventing the American publishing industry, also invented venerable American institutions like libraries and fire departments. He encouraged charity health care for infants and widows. He strove to make science and politics spheres of discovery and influence for the people.
Where are we now? If you listen to Carter’s entire speech, he talks about making Washington a place for the people again. The swamp wasn’t drained in 1979. It wasn’t drained in 2016 either. Nothing has changed. We are right where we were, but slightly more comfortable and with better technology.
We are lost in thought as we seek the next dopamine hit, mindlessly thumbing through our newest iPhone. Don’t get me wrong: This is self-directed criticism. This is my mindless behavior. I am part of the problem. That’s where I’ve found myself far too often this past week: new gadget in hand, hours of my life evaporating before my eyes. The house is on fire, I know it, I’m bitching about the smell of the smoke, but the couch is too comfortable to get up.
The problem is that it’s far easier to consume than produce. I was talking about this with Talk Beer Gene, and as is typical, he was far more insightful on the topic than me:
“For whatever reason, our deepest programming is hard-coded to assume that the ideal state of existence is one in which we do absolutely nothing and consume absolutely everything. It takes discipline to discover otherwise.”
I suck at austerity. I chase things. I’ve wanted a Shinola watch and a Jeep Wrangler for years. Why? I don’t know. I guess I thought they’d make me happy. Thankfully, I’ve realized before I shelled out the money that neither will. Neither will cause the fog of depression to dissipate.
But you know what has? Doing. Producing. Participating. Removing.
My car is in the shop this weekend. It hasn’t had power steering for about six months. Frances and I have saved enough to get it repaired. The fact that my Honda Civic is not in the driveway, weighing on my mind, is, for some reason, a large burden that has been lifted. I am house-bound and carless today as Frances heads out to workout and run errands. This is surprisingly not a problem.
I don’t want the watch. My Timex does just fine. I don’t want the Jeep. It’s a selfish, gas-guzzling indulgence I can live without. I don’t even want to drive much anymore, and am gravitating toward buying a bike for my six-mile commute in the warmer months, thanks to Mr. Money Mustache.
But most important, I will strive to create rather than consume.