Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Category: Simplicity

One Reason Your Life is So Hard


Photo via Open Grid Scheduler

My wife’s debit card wasn’t working. Someone at the bank made an error when setting up her account and now the system wouldn’t recognize her PIN. She had to call the bank to get them to fix the problem. But, it was after hours. So, she called the 24-hour telebanking number. A machine answered. It offered no way to reset her PIN. This meant another call to the bank sometime the next business day.

This incident seems trivial. Things like this happen thousands of times a day, these little inconveniences of modern life. But, taken in the aggregate, these small snags constitute one of the major reasons modern life is so hard.

Every change designed to make our lives more convenient inevitably requires of us some greater level of involvement, a commitment to ongoing maintenance work that is often more taxing than simply doing without.  More often than not, the demands our “conveniences” make on us come about as the result of the corporations who run things trying to wring one more dollar from their customers.

Here is another example. My Roku has begun automatically adding channels. When I turn on the television to watch Netflix, instead of getting immediate access to the channels I actually want, I have to wait while Roku tries to add Nick Jr. to my channel list. Then, I have to take more of my time to delete the unwanted channel.

These little irritations are not disturbing merely because they require us to put out a little more effort or to tolerate small inconveniences. They are disturbing because when daily life is filled with such things, when all our interactions with services we need or want are unnecessarily complicated, people develop an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

A few days ago, I wrote about that guy dragged off the United airplane. The reason that story resonated with so many is because we saw in the image of a man being dragged down the aisle of an airplane by his arms in order to prevent a reduction of corporate profits a crystallization of our own feelings.

And our feelings are largely an accurate reflection of our situation.

James Howard Kunstler is fond of pointing out how our built environment is designed beyond human scale. Everything is huge. Everything dwarfs the individual. Ride along on the interstate in any major city and his point is evident. The infrastructure is so large you can feel yourself nearly disappearing. But, it’s not only our built environment that suffers from this out-of-all-reasonable-scale problem. So does everything else.

Consider how complex the simple act of buying a pack of gum has become. Imagine you walk to the register. You can choose between standard check-out and self check-out. You choose the self check-out lane. You scan your gum. It doesn’t take. You scan it again. And again. One more time.  You have to wave down the distracted attendant. He comes over and pushes a few buttons. He gets the thing scanned. Then,  a screen pops up asking which of the four possible payment methods you would like to use. You swipe your debit card. It doesn’t work. The machine won’t read it. You try again. Still nothing. You wave the attendant down again. He swipes your card just as you did ten seconds ago. The same result. The machine won’t read it. He tries another three or four times. Then, he does that thing where he puts the card inside the plastic bag and the machine finally reads it. You take your receipt and finally leave the store, only to discover once you are in your car that you grabbed the wrong flavor from among the 37 varieties of gum on display.

This endless complication of daily activities in the name of “choice” and “convenience” creates the sense of powerlessness, of being swept along by forces outside oneself that many of us feel.  The number of options we have in everything, like what kind of gum to buy, adds to our sense of meaninglessness. When you have 37 gum options, most are as good as any other. This is one way in which our vast number of options creates, not real choices, but simply the illusion of the power to choose.

In her famous memoir of growing up in a rural English village just before the impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt in full, Flora Thompson describes an entirely different world. She may as well have grown up on a different planet.

The life she describes, while rougher and more limited than ours in some ways, lacked the overwhelming scope and scale that characterizes our time. Imagine a life that consisted of working at home, evenings spent with friends at the pub a couple of streets away, raising children and church. Most of life happened within a mile of your home. A big day for Thompson’s family was walking a few miles to the closest town of a couple thousand people.

The advantage of living life within those sorts of limits is that most things can be controlled or influenced directly by the individual. Contact with social and political bureaucracy was rare.  The scale of one’s built environment generally reflected a more human and modest vision. All of this contributed to a sense of the individual’s agency.

There’s no going back to that lifestyle on a massive scale. But, for those of us who desire to increase our sense of power, reducing the scope and scale of our lives is a must. Once again, unplugging from the American anti-culture is a first step toward increasing peace and contentment.  We can’t entirely unplug, but we can do so enough to find that, in spite of all the voices urging us to adopt some new measure of “convenience”, that there is nothing more convenient than a little simplicity.

On the Necessity of Romance

Photo via By The Sea

Photo via By The Sea

More and more, I think about romance. Mostly, I notice its absence. By romance, I mean not that mysterious process by which men and women are drawn together, but the larger dynamic of which the springing forth of love affairs is but a part.

By “romance”, I mean all the experiences and attitudes that make life engaging, interesting and beautiful. The birth of love, the pursuit of sexual union, the intricate dance between the sexes amount to only one expression, one sort, of romantic experience. This larger set of romantic experiences and attitudes are hard to come by now, suppressed as they are by the very structure of modern life.

We are not accustomed to thinking of romance in these terms.  To do so is to risk being honest about the fact that modern life does not satisfy, and too much honesty about that might upset some people, including ourselves.

So, we are conditioned to associate the idea of romance exclusively with personal relationships. We are taught to believe that our hunger for an elevated life, a life of meaning and purpose, will be satisfied through sexual love. Of course, this never works. Relationships bust apart or settle down to mundane realities.

This tells us something more is meant by the word, and that our hunger for romance can never be satisfied by another person alone. When, for example, a woman says she wants a man who is romantic, she doesn’t mean she wants a man who obsesses over her. She means she wants a man capable of making life interesting and exciting and meaningful.

Romance, in this larger sense, is an enemy of modern life. Above all, modern life is characterized by its banality. The texture of daily life these days is smooth and and safe, empty and lacking. In our coordinated efforts to create a life defined by ease, consumerism and conformity to the modern vision, we have eliminated most of the necessary ingredients of romance: beauty, risk and transcendence.

We were made for more. Living in a romance-less world is one reason why so many of us are unhappy. We long for a life that fulfills to a greater degree. We long for a life with more freedom, unpredictability, and meaning than modern living affords.

Imagine living in a previous age. Certainly, its hardships could be great. There would be drudgery for sure. But, all that drudgery occurred in a context that tended to imbue it with meaning and, above all, romance is about meaning. In an earlier age, your toil, however arduous, took place in a context of close contact with nature, neighbors and faith; all elements that lend daily life meaning and, indeed, a sort of romance.

Today, those elements have largely been replaced by predictable urban existence, isolation and secular consumerism. All these are the enemies of romance. There is a reason no one ever sets his romantic fantasies under the buzzing fluorescent lights of the cubicle farm next to the mall. Romantic fantasies take place on the shore of a misty sea, upon the windy moors, deep in the mystical forest, all places where the grip of modernity is loosest.

The result of the loss of those circumstances that naturally add romance to our lives is widespread desperation. People try to escape it, naturally, through the empty distractions modernity provides. We are trained to consume and for most this training is quite effective. Yet, our consumption only intensifies our hunger.

The only way out is to take control of our lives, to direct them away from  homogenized, dazzling commercial pleasures and toward those things that provide real adventure, real satisfaction, real romance.

The first step is to unplug. This means leaving the television off most of the time. Maybe it means divesting yourself from your sports fandom. Maybe it means fewer lunchtime trips to Starbucks. Whatever it means, it means doing and having less in order to be more. Romance requires margin, space for the serendipitous to be born.

The next step is to seek connection, in whatever way possible, with those things that are inherently romantic. This means strengthening your connection to nature. Just stand in your backyard. Go to the park and pay a little attention. Look closely at what is before you. Notice what you normally don’t.

Above all, it means being intentional about life. It means rejecting our cultural defaults. Living a life with space for romance in a programmed, mechanized culture means living a counter-cultural life.

Only by being intentional, rebelling to some degree against the culture, can we get into contact with those attitudes and practices that really elevate our souls. The sources of romance no longer flow toward us unbidden. Now they must be sought.

Our hearts are a force like horses pulling in the direction of what satisfies. Only by pulling against them with all our might do we keep moving down the road our desolate culture prescribes. If we lighten up on the reigns, our inner horses will pull us in the direction they know we ought to move. It’s time to let go a little, time to trust the brute animals of our inward lives, to let them lead us out of the dreary, predictable city and into the open country where anything may happen.


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Why It’s So Hard to Be Satisfied


Just imagine a little room, big enough for two, maybe three if one is a child. The furnishings are comfortable. It’s warm, maybe there’s a fire you can sit by. On a table sits a full plate. No one here is going to starve, or even want for much. For amusement there are books, games, even perhaps a computer.

Outside there are other rooms in other homes where neighbors and friends dwell. This room with all its accouterments, when filled by people who love one another, is the best life on earth offers.

People used to long for such a space. In many times and in many places around the world, these meager comforts have been difficult to attain. That’s mostly behind us now, at least in the West.

In modern America, a home like this and all it entails is within reach of almost everyone. And now that we have reached this threshold of plenty, we find almost no one can be satisfied with the elemental comforts of family, friends, good food and warmth.

There are two primary reasons for this, one internal and one external.

People have trouble being satisfied with what is now easily available because people have trouble being satisfied. Our nature tends toward dissatisfaction and complaint. Part of us is always seeking something better, second-guessing what we’ve chosen, comparing our situation with those we imagine have it better. That’s just how we are.

Society used to recognize this fact. Back then, there was more cultural support for those interested in changing their inner habits. Cultural institutions reinforced the need for character, the need to shape oneself to fit an ideal.

Now, of course, that practice is mostly gone. An ideal still exists, of course, but it’s a very different ideal. The ideal is no longer to be a modest person capable of being satisfied, grateful for whatever blessings have been bestowed up on you. The ideal now is to be an active achiever whose worth and value are recognized and rewarded with ever-increasing purchasing power. Where once the ideal emphasized contentment, the ideal now emphasizes the power to consume.

Naturally, a focus on climbing the ladder toward greater consumptive power conflicts with the ability to be satisfied by those elemental pleasures in our imaginary room. The solution to this problem is the cultivation of character. The answer is to exercise our will to overcome our impulse toward more, toward dissatisfaction. We need to remove from our minds everything that keeps us from seeing what truly brings satisfaction.

This is difficult to do because of the second reason for our mass disinterest in the now widely available pleasures of home. This one lies outside our souls and in the culture that surrounds us. We all have voices inside us that urge us to dissatisfaction, and we live in a culture that prods us to listen.

People have a hard time living quiet, happy lives because powerful forces profit from their doing otherwise. Our situation is not just that people want more and more, but that they are told daily to want more and more. They are told that the normal, healthy, good person wants more and more. Advertisers sell a vision of the good life daily and lots of people buy it.

Eventually, people find themselves in a position where even if they discipline themselves to be satisfied with the basic comforts and pleasures of home, they can barely enjoy them. People often wake up to the true nature of their harried, disjointed lives only after living out such patterns has taken its toll. By the time they realize what’s happening, reverting to a lifestyle of simple pleasures is impossibly complicated.

Take money, for example. Living a life that emphasizes the appreciation of home and neighbor doesn’t require riches, but it does require economic stability. Our society, the richest in history, makes economic stability difficult to achieve. Seventy-six percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Charles Hugh Smith has written about how hard it is for most people to earn $60,000 a year.

Without this kind of economic stability it’s tough to relax. Without the chance to relax, it’s almost impossible to meditate on the values that create a life that satisfies. Our internal inclination toward dissatisfaction conspires with the society around us to keep us from the kind of profound reflection necessary to build an approximate home.

So, in spite of the fact that the basics of a stable, safe and satisfying life are now easily within the grasp of most people, we find ourselves tossed about by internal and external realities that cause us to devalue them. As a result, many who imagine the little room described above see not a haven from the pressures of the world, but a cell that holds them back from something better they are sure is to come.

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Three Things I Learned from Hanging Around the Amish


Photo via Anita Ritenour

When we moved to Ohio five years ago, we were surprised to find ourselves settled next to the largest concentration of Amish in the United States. All of a sudden, there were buggies rolling up the hill at Wal-Mart, lots of beards and bonnets on sunny mornings at the Farmers’ Market.

I determined to get to know a few. Making connections with members of that community became a priority for me. It wasn’t easy. Some Amish people can be standoffish, closed. We were fortunate to get to know a couple who were open to us. That relationship led to a chance to attend an Amish church.

Over the years, these interactions have taught me some important things. Here are three.

1. The Amish are more diverse than you might imagine.

From the outside it’s easy to assume all Amish people are the same: they all drive buggies, they all dress alike, they all refuse to use electricity. None of that is true. The Amish inhabit a wide spectrum.

On one end are the Swartzentrubers, a group that eschews most modern technology and restricts their social lives to those within the group. On the other end are the Beachy Amish. They might use the Internet and many drive cars. Between these poles fall a number of other sub-groups, the most prominent being the Old Order Amish.

Even among the groups, there is variation. Each Amish community functions independently to set its limits and structures. That means that an Amish community in one area might say no to having telephones, while another somewhere else might allow them.

These differences are subtle but important for understanding the Amish way of life.

2. The Amish, just like every religious group, contains people of varying religiosity.

If you go down to your local Presbyterian church one Sunday morning and look around, you’ll see a group of people living at various levels of commitments to their faith. The same is true for Amish groups.

It’s easy to imagine that every Amish person is deeply committed to his faith. The truth is that every Amish group has people who take their faith, on a personal level, more or less seriously. Of course, the group as a whole takes the faith seriously and structures the lives of its members by church services and meetings.

But that doesn’t mean that every single member of an Amish community is committed to acts of daily Christian devotion. It would be wrong to assume that every Amish person is committed to daily private study of the Bible or even to daily private prayer. Somewhere, I’m sure, there is an Amish person who is an atheist.

Because Amish customs obscure the individuality of the particular members of the community, we non-Amish tend to think they are all the same. Nothing could be further from reality.

3. We non-Amish are more caught up in our system than we think.

It’s easy to tell ourselves that we value the same things as the Amish. We care about family. We care about community. We care about living simply and not buying every single thing we’re told to.

Spending time with the Amish makes clear how often those sentiments are expressed within the assumptions of our contemporary consumerist system. Most of us never reflect on how deep our training in this system goes. It takes spending time around people who haven’t been trained in that system to see it.

When we non-Amish want to tone down our materialism, we mean we’re only going to the mall once a month; we don’t mean we intend to make all our own clothes. When we say we care about sticking with the place where we live, we mean we’re not going to move unless a really good job opens up somewhere else; we don’t mean we’re going to stop driving.

Being around the Amish has shown me to what a great extent the modern American puts convenience at the heart of life. For most of us convenience is a very big value. We like being able to jump into the car and drive to the store when we need something. The Amish often build barriers to convenience into their lives. They want to make it difficult to leave the family, the community, the place. And this, more than even their dress or other odd habits, makes them seem odd to us.

Living near the Amish has been an education and one of the best things about our time in Central Ohio. My goal is to learn even more, to make even more friends among that group because the more I learn about the Amish, the more I learn about the non-Amish and the more I learn about myself.

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Against “Organizational Skills”


Photo via Criss Cross Circus

Things go haywire pretty easily. You’ve seen it happen. One minute you’re on top of things, then suddenly you’re in the middle of a mess you can’t explain, just hoping to get out.

It happens at work. Something slips through the cracks. A deadline gets missed. There are recriminations and that odd, awkward dance of responsibility-shifting where no one quite blames anyone else openly, but everyone denies the problem lies with him.

Something similar happens at home. You miss an appointment. Nothing gets puts back in its right place. Stuff is everywhere. You want to cry from the pressure to be in multiple places at once.

The cure for all this, we’re told, is to develop better organizational skills. If only we could juggle one more ball, then the world would work as a finally tuned machine. The problem keeping the world from running smoothly, in this scenario, is you. If only you were better, your job and family would be smooth sailing. The problem is that you are simply an incompetent manager of your time and resources. If you’d just get your act together, everything would be bliss.

It’s not true. More often than not, the idea of “organizational skills” is a smokescreen that hides a deeper, more serious problem. Many people think they suffer from a lack of organizational skills when, in fact, they suffer from a glut of possessions and commitments. In other words, the chaos of our work and personal lives is not a result of lacking something (organizational skills), but the result of having a surplus of everything else.

This isn’t to say that people and organizations aren’t disorganized. They are. But that disorganization doesn’t stem from the places most people think, nor are the solutions to the problem of disorganization what people typically imagine.

Stopping the juggling act at home requires some boundaries. You will have to say no. No to more commitments. No to more stuff. Somebody wants to give you their old coffee-maker? Say no. You don’t really need to commit to another weekly meeting. Just tell them you can’t make it. Ever. Instead, stay home and fill a box with things you can get rid of.

The situation at work is trickier because saying no at work is trickier. Still, you don’t have to volunteer for anything. You can begin by telling yourself that your worth is not tied to how much you do at work. If you can’t say no to your boss, you can say no to your own impulse to take on more: more assignments, more responsibility, more worries. You can say no whenever possible to more things that would test your “organizational skills.”

What’s important to notice here is that the default understanding of why things are such a mess privatizes a cultural problem. Our culture is a culture of excess. We prize having just a little bit more. We ignore limits. We celebrate clutter.

A culture that trains people to ignore limits is a culture of stressed out, unhappy people. To keep the consumption train rolling smoothly along, we are taught the reason for our unhappiness lies in us. We are at fault. We haven’t tried hard enough to develop our “organizational skills.”

It’s no accident that this explanation has economic benefits for the system. By convincing us that we are the reason for the chaos in our home and work lives, they keep us buying. We keep right on acquiring more and more, convinced that the clutter will evaporate once we get ourselves “organized.”

At work, companies have learned that the ideology of “organizational skills” allows them to demand more from employees. Corporations can ignore every inherent human limit by asking more and more from employees. If you can’t cut it, they’ll find someone who can, someone with better “organizational skills.” Thus, corporations avoid the costs they would have to accept to hire more staff and instead transfer those costs to existing employees in the form of increased stress. Employees accept this arrangement because they believe the fault lies with them and their poor “organizational skills.”

I’m not making an argument for sloppiness or confusion. I am making an argument for boundaries. The reason we’re disorganized isn’t because we lack skills, but because we lack respect for limits. Berating ourselves about our inability to organize all our stuff and all our commitments won’t help a bit. The solution is not to learn to keep more balls in the air. The solution is to put down as many balls as possible and walk away.


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