Don’t be absurd – 3 tips to practical sanity

absurd medieval rabbits torture a manThere’s a wild streak of absurdity running feral in the world. The public sphere of debate, politics and planning have blurred into ranting, clownish blurts of the absurd. Perhaps this isn’t new – perhaps there is a tide of the absurd that washes in and out of human communities periodically. If so, it is high tide because (for an example) at the moment it seems that the idea that anyone in any media can be assumed to be telling the truth is now an outmoded, dowdy joke. Not a funny joke, more a disparaging snort of derision. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like that.

I think that having fundamental expectations be absurd undermines our sense of connection to each other and creates an environment in which anything goes, because nothing is ‘true’ any more.

So in an absurd world how do we stay realistic without going mad or becoming overburdened with cynicism? We remember what is always true. Here are three truthful tips to help you stay sane in a flood of absurdity.

Happiness is never absurd

Your happiness and wellbeing matter. Primarily to you and those closest to you, of course, but this is always true. You can hold onto this. That’s not an invitation to become an egomaniac, but a simple reminder that in the face of bureaucratic coldness and structural stupidity you still have value as a sentient being. That is not a grand statement but it is a truth. Well it is a truth I invite you to make the choice to believe in.

Nature is never absurd

Strange, wondrous and amazing the natural world can give you almost infinite pleasure. If you interact with it and let it interact with you then there is a stable and meaningful continuity to that relationship which offers a counterbalance to the absurd in human endeavours.  The endless repeating of patterns in nature are true. They are the language we turned into mathematics. Nature is our alpha and our omega.

Even those who might dream of taking humans to far-off planets must think hard about how to bring nature along for the ride or gamble all on finding it there and welcoming at the destination. Let the natural world be a truth in your reckoning.

Love is a verb

The advanced idea that ‘love is a verb’ is an antidote to the absurd because it puts an active involvement at the centre of choices. It puts a rudder in the waters of chaos and brings the first two ideas into your choice in the now. How will you chose your next action in the context of valuing your wellbeing, and staying connected with the fundamental truth of nature? From those two truths you can triangulate more easily to love in the world and towards your own path of truth.

It may well be high tide for the absurd right now, but this too shall pass.

Over scheduled and too busy to worry

over scheduledDo you have the over-scheduled virus? It is a type of modern flu that has all the symptoms you’re sadly familiar with: fatigue, poor sleep, low level physical ailments (sniffles! That half cough!), a constant sense of not quite being ‘all there’ (because you’re keeping at least one eye on the clock to make sure you get to your next appointment on time), and perhaps worst of all is the gnawing doubt that a helluva lot of what is taking up all that time is not actually important. You know, proper important. Especially compared to the things you’re too tired for at the end of the day, like conversation.

I remember conversation, it is when you talk about something other than the logistics of the next day or who will do which chores. I’m sure I’m still capable of it, if only I had the time. Of course any spare time gets soaked up quickly by the ever-present “should do” list or sleep but presumably there’s a possible future in which I’m caught up on all those things and so is someone I know and we could have a conversation. Hahaha When did that become an almost outlandish fantasy?! Even people I know who are retired from work are busy busy busy. Strange days.

Why you stay over scheduled

But you know, there’s a payoff to this behaviour too, a hidden lining that creates comfort. You wouldn’t think so but there’s plenty worse your brain could be doing and keeping you busy today and tomorrow is really quite clever because when we slow down our habit is not to stay in the now. Oh no, we send our giant brains out into the days beyond and into what might happen. Dangerous ground indeed for this is the hunting grounds for anxiety. Dwell briefly in the future and make a decision about the suitable path and all is well, one can navigate through events and respond when challenges arise. Lingering in the permutations of what might be is necessary for great work but demands huge capacity to defend and define one’s limits and scope. Otherwise the clever early-mammal part of your brain is lured into a hamster wheel of what ifs and becomes trapped in the momentum of its own spinning. Anxiety feeds on you again. There’s a nascent part of our (perhaps higher) self working hard to explain these traps and warn us of the dangers. We tend not to listen.

The ego believes passionately that we’re above such silly situations. The compromise is our over-scheduling. It appeases the puff of the ego and perilously protects the vulnerable brain from too much anxiety. It would be funny if it wasn’t so personal! So the payoffs are always there in our behaviours. You could call it the comfort of complaining. These habits can be so hard to acknowledge without someone to talk things over with and that time in which to reflect on our own patterns or those of our friends (actually I’m a lot wiser when it comes to other people than I am about myself). I’m also lucky to have some very wise friends! So although I’m over-scheduled I’m cautious about just stopping and so making a gap. Even if I could completely stop work and all my commitments and responsibilities that comes with a different risk. We all know that nature abhors a vacuum and in the past it has been another extreme – anxiety – that filled it. I’d like to do it differently this time. I’d like to find a middle way.

Have you ever tried a self-development course and come across a facile question like “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Oh you’ve GOT to be kidding?! But I tried, I tried so hard to soar with eagles and do better and be better and unleash the giant within and all that stuff. But what I’ve learned is a hard lesson to share, and it is that pretending you can’t fail is unfalteringly useless and here’s why.

Making a friend of failure

Of course you could fail. Most of us actually live from a primary identity of failure. That’s a constant in our lives. From the moment we fell over learning to walk we have implicitly understood that failure is part of the human condition. Even as a mind game to expand our comfort zone it is really really the wrong question to be asking.

Here’s a question to try on. “What is so important to you that you will do it anyway, knowing that you will fail in part?” It is likely that you will fail to meet your fullest dreams, on the other hand there are amazing discoveries promised if unknown at the outset. How might you answer that question? Take a minute now if you like to roll it around and see what you come up with.

This choice, this engagement with your own private calling, does not ignore or diminish the idea of failure and instead embraces it. It is not some light optimism that evades the shadows or distorts the reality of challenge, but instead a serious call to us to face the source of meaning and value in our lives. It is a middle path that expects courage and offers a radical hope. I’m not quite proud of my failures yet, but I am ready to expand them. Are you? Share your proud failures or your middle path in the comments.

Tiny stitches

tiny stitchesHave you heard that phrase – “a stitch in time saves nine”? It is one of those useful proverbs reminding us to take a little action now when we first think of something rather than waiting for the problem to unravel even further into something that will take perhaps nine times the effort to fix, if indeed it can be fixed all by then.
Oftentimes we think of life in big pictures – heroic moments – if you will when the reality of life is actually in the millions of tiny stitches that we make each day on the underside of our life. All those tiny stitches pulling one thing and another together to make the pattern of who we are, what we value, how we play.
No one ever sees them, but they’re there all the same. We know them. We know what it took to make them just so, the cost and yes the do-overs and regrets too.

We find happiness, hope and solace in continuing to stitch our lives together out of what comes our way, working in our private dreams and celebrating wins when we can. Sometimes life rips us away from our patch of meaning and challenges us to pick up the thread. It can take a while to face that setback. But this is life, to muddle forwards as we can. Lots of people spend time in denial, wishing things were otherwise, but that is a type of stitching too. In that stitching you’re not placing your needle to any advantage.

When things are darkest or toughest, it can be hard to remember that you are still making tiny stitches. Your choice in that regard remains. Each breath can be deep or each meal can be eaten in gratitude, or each question an opportunity to ask or be open to listen. Tiny stitches make up our time. They will never be perfect, and they don’t need to be. They’re your tiny stitches, yours to place where you will.

Living with depression

can't even adultA bout in the ring with the black dog this week. There’s never a winner so sport metaphors are fundamentally flawed but it does feel like a fight rather than a dance. In reflecting on what it is like to live with depression from inside it, I will use the first person. I don’t know what it is like for anyone else and indeed this illness is fundamentally isolating, so it is doubly hard to create any sense of connection at all from within it, let alone with my fellow travelers. Also, I chose first person to remind us both that this is a moment in time that I want to share with you as honestly as I can – not a story ‘about a friend’ or as an academic survey or a summary of therapy and help options. All these things already exist elsewhere and by people better qualified than me, I’m just someone living with depression who this week can think of nothing more useful or honest than describing what that is like.

I’m crazy to tell you I have depression

By the way this is not sympathy fishing or for pity or some kind of release for me. After all I’d be crazy to tell the world I have depression. Who’d hire someone like that or be friends with them!?  Well apart from that, from inside this place, those are not emotional states or exchanges I require. They don’t make any sense in here. I’m motivated because I know other people are curious about what it is like and generally they’re too polite or thoughtful to ask (or of course they have their own journey in these lands). In this place I am not verbally capable of answering and generally I work hard to hide this experience. This time I am doing something different. I’m telling the truth as gently and carefully as possible, but the truth nonetheless. If you’re uninterested in reading, I understand completely. I’m uninterested in continuing to experience this, so you have my sympathy.

Living through a depression is for me an experience of involuntary retreat. I can see my normal self at a distance. I have some limited access to the positive emotions of that person however not very much to the positive ones. I know I’m eating delicious food and it is a beautiful day but there is no connection to the sensation of pleasure or the emotion of joy. The bright colours of my clothes feel grey. They are part of my camouflage to try and act normal, to get by in the normal world.

A hollow world

My world today is hollow, grey and has no taste. I am become a meaningless burden on society and the earth. My body is sorrow and I am dissolved into nothing. Through that umbilical thread that connects me to my normal self, I can see that this hurts those who love me and that they’re reaching out, trying and wanting to help me. My normal self feels guilt for their pain and shame at this involuntary weakness. From where I am now, I brush it off. I smile (yes, I know it looks fake but I’m trying ok) and say ‘it is ok, I’m sure it will pass soon’ or some such distraction. It is a white lie that makes my normal self feel a little better about the cleanup she’ll have to do when it is all over and she hopes to still have friends. She’s aghast that I’ve decided to write this today but respects my decision and reasons to do so. She’s given her commitment to stand by it later, but I know that she’s worried about it. Selfish cow. As I like to remind her – we’re all in this together.

I am one, I am many

Does it make you uncomfortable that I’m speaking about parts of myself in the third person? It is something that helps me remember that the hollow lands of depression are not the only place I am a citizen. There are times when this me who survives these times of annihilation is just a memory too. When I didn’t have this technique, thoughts of suicide were common inside this place. After all the normal me was completely lost then in the maze. When no joys can be felt or even remembered, the hollowness that stretches out is unbearable.

Compartmentalising things is useful and so is keeping chunks of time in short bursts. There can be no far horizons in this place. Keep to just now as much as possible. For me this means the routines of life need to be honoured. Gentle exercise, scheduled tasks, as many as possible of the responsibilities of normal life need to be maintained. My normal self knows that these all contribute to alleviating the length and severity of the bout overall. They also help in hiding what is going on for such useful purposes as staying employed. I do all these things and it is an autopilot setting. It is not infallible. It feels stupid, but normal me knows it helps. I’m no brave little soldier, I need my time under a blanket too, but just as easily I can stop and sit and the day will pass unheeded around me.

So many days gone by

That’s what I used to do before I understood what this was and what was happening to me. When I was little it was seen as “being moody” and not simply snapping out of it was considered a belligerent act of rebellion. I can’t begin to unpack that right now, irony is also too subtle for this state. It was a long time ago, so it doesn’t really matter, but in hindsight there were so many days where I was lost in the hollow lands. I wish I’d had some help sooner, but I had no way of asking for it, nor of accepting it had it come.

Help did eventually come in the unusual shape of the suggestion in my normal life to help others whenever possible. This simple thing ended up creating a radical shift. We could summarise it as ‘learning how to be nice’. One of the life-altering outcomes of this that effortlessly translates from normal life over into the hollow lands is that I got a dog. I wanted someone to love and care for that wouldn’t be too harsh about my failings as a human and I had no idea that I would forever after be the greater recipient. Even in the hollow lands, that little dog fearlessly and lovingly trots next no me, happy to walk if I walk and happy to nap under the blanket too.

I’m trying to find a silver lining in the dark grey cloud, and it would be that little dog. His love built the bridge that I use to travel back to normal land. He taught me that love can survive even in the hollow lands and there could have been no greater gift for me. It lead me into a happy future, where this is a place I only visit, not live.

Road rage reflection

It can happen to anybody, maybe even you. Road rage. That ugly beast we can become on the road, and the zombie partner that forms it; if you slip into one, you’ll flip into the other. Let’s take a minute for some road rage reflection.

Chariot pile upImagine if, on a weekday morning, you came out of the house to start your daily commute and found this note on your windscreen.

“To the driver of this vehicle,
You have cut me off twice now, both times I don’t think you saw me at all, even though you came so close and put us both in danger. If you cannot recall the incidents with absolute clarity, then any excuse you think you have is invalid.
Driving is a privilege not a right. Please take this opportunity to refresh your knowledge of the road rules and your understanding of courtesy, and take care to apply them both.
Please don’t make it a third time.”

If that note would give you reason to pause and mentally scroll through memories and evaluate your possible guilt or culpability then you could be someone with an opportunity to change your habits and values when behind the wheel.

Perhaps your opportunity is instead in your habits dealing with shop staff, workers from a different team at your job, the staff who operate the public transport you use, the other people buying groceries at the store, fellow pedestrians, it goes on and on. We have so many interactions every day with so many different people who all have their own story in which they are the central character. For each of us, these are habitual interactions because we live in a world brimming over with people. We have become functions to each other, not fellows, not real people. Functions, meatbots.

Do you ever criticise people who seem continually clenched around their gadget screen or asleep at the wheel or pushing others out of the way in queues? I know I have. It doesn’t feel like enough to try breaking the cycle when those other people then take advantage of you for being nice. We’re all afraid of someone taking advantage of us. I wish I had a moment of enlightenment for every time I’ve been told to ‘toughen up’ or ‘get a thicker skin’.

Actually, when people tell me this I feel more hurt (even fundamentally neglected or undervalued). After all, why can’t other people just be nicer? Why am I the one who’s ‘wrong’? The same types of folk who have no compunction about telling others to ‘toughen up’ seem to never be willing to similarly command others to “be less of an arsehole”. Just sayin.

A wise teacher recently told me that every time I complain about others’ behaviours I am a in fact setting myself back significantly. “Oh great” I thought, “wrong again! Wrong for being too soft, wrong for wanting the world to be more pleasant and now wrong for complaining when others are rude or mean.” That little story I just told to myself there, that was the key to figuring out what he really meant by what he said.
Here are his words:

See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

I did not want to hear that.

I tried to argue with it. The very first way was by making up that little story above – exaggerating how I am always being made to be wrong – a little melodrama with me as the swooning star. I thought about it every way you can. For weeks. But that’s the trouble with hearing something true, once you know it your life truly changes. So it has been for me as I digest this insight. All else is indeed madness. Leave or accept. Act where you can.

In trying to come to terms with this, I stumbled over this little twist on an old favourite “the grass is always greener where you water it”, fresh enough for me to reflect on my own habits of envy, and to remember the “which wolf you feed” story) and these both made a bridge for me into the key idea that through habit I was allowing a self-identification as a victim in all kinds of realms of daily life. Perhaps that’s another part of road rage – there is a desire to take action against an unfairness or wrong action – and yet violent response outside of building and understanding context and consequence is feeding the wrong wolf, watering the weeds.

In a moment of rage we can be lost to our stories and triggered into moving far from our center. It can feel like blacking out, like being possessed. Inside that unconsciousness we are simply reacting, not making choices. If you feel that you’re in a rut in trying to get positive patterns started in your life then look for places in which you’re complaining about something rather than acting to generate the change that you want. Look with honesty in how you’re describing the story of your situation to yourself and ask if you’re truly supporting the person you want to be or simply enduring the habits you used to water. Imagine forgetting what useless, impotent rage feels like. I think that sounds wonderful, let’s try together.

Image credit.

Ten years living with ulcerative colitis

Janine Prince March 2015This week marks ten years living with ulcerative colitis. Not an anniversary to celebrate. No. However a moment worth marking nonetheless and I’d like to bear witness to my experience. My intention is to do so as a recognition of all the other people who are living with a chronic illness or for those who might find these words when they are first diagnosed, and search (as I did at the time) for some hint that life goes on.
I haven’t learned enough in life yet, but I have learned that my burden is not the heaviest nor the only burden being carried. So many people suffer every day, and that’s the normal part of their day. Many of them are brave, they are courageous, generous, loving and all those things that people are and to me they seem to be saints because they do all of that without ever asking for pity or a special deal for their own personal situation.
I’ve never been like that. I grew up a self-centred, petulant and ego-driven individual who coasted through life enjoying good health and generally easy successes. If something didn’t go my way, I threw a tantrum. I was bad mannered and basically, if you’ll excuse the expression, a pain in the arse.

The fall

Like many people I was misdiagnosed in the early stages and also like many people, the arrival of this condition was extreme. I won’t bore you or try to shock you with the tedious and grotesque details, but if you are interested, by all means read about ulcerative colitis on Wikipedia and be warned, it isn’t pleasant and there are pictures. The first months were a traumatic roller-coaster of denial, endless specialist visits and a cocktail of anger, fatigue, loneliness and humiliation.
Anyone who has a chronic illness has probably had a similar experience in the broad sense. It is something that undermines your sense of identity, worth and optimism. I came to my knees and the landing was hard. Nothing was fair, and no amount of tantrums would change the physical facts. I kept fighting, and I kept not getting anywhere. Chronic illness does not have any obligation to get better or ease up or otherwise change itself just because your life is falling apart.

I can’t go on

For me, it got a bit worse psychologically even while my physical symptoms began to stabilise. Due to the large blood loss sustained on a daily basis, I had a lovey delicate pallor that was visually appealing. I didn’t have anything bandaged, or in a cast, or visible bruising – I looked pretty good. Inside I was in constant pain (no suggestion at that time from any specialist that I seek or simply be given some support for this, other than more drugs) and questioning if this might be a good time to make an informed decision to exist the great stage. Not only was I not confident that the daily regime of drugs would ever restore me to functional operation, but I felt that I had lost my place in the world. Who would ever want someone this broken?

I’ll go on

Thankfully, I didn’t have the energy or the requisite escape-velocity of self-loathing to finalise the exit at that time and urgent practical matters took my mind off the subject in the long, dark nights. If you’re in the first year or so of having been diagnosed with a chronic illness, please get support as soon as possible for managing your physical and emotional pain. Much as you may think it, you’re not currently in a position to make an “informed decision” about what to do with yourself. In hindsight, I can see it was my ego throwing a pretty big tantrum. A bluff I wouldn’t wish on anybody to call.
The sun rose in the east, arced through the sky and set again to the west. The tides of the moon and the wheel of the year swung around me while my bubble of self-protection and self-pity got cramped and ever lonelier. People have different experiences. I was slowly to learn that I was one of the lucky ones. For a long time I kept a list of illness I was grateful I didn’t have and it got longer as I began to listen to other people’s stories. The burdens I was unequal to carrying slowly lightened as I was able to return to work and also to listen with empathy to what others were carrying. It was still unfair, and so little in life was, that the bleakness never wavered. Days trudged by and the game became one of fighting boredom. I was still fighting, still not winning, still pushing people away as much as begging for closeness. It was a life, but it felt hollow. The fight had been to stop the illness from taking over, from changing things, from taking the freedom of choice away. Laugh if you like, it had done that from the moment it appeared, would I ever come to my senses and stop fighting something that had already won?

The serpent

The trouble was, chronic illness is so easy to see as an enemy. For years I thought of it as a great coiled serpent where my bowel should be. A serpent that in some nightmares ate me whole from the feet up. My powerful enemy could bring me to my knees at any time it cared to flex and coil, raise and strike. My feeble body was a warzone of drugs, fear and fatigue.

What if it is all ok?

Thankfully there are a lot of wise and giving people in the world, some of whom planted seeds of wisdom and compassion in my stony skull. I still had some long dark nights where I wondered if all this effort was for nothing, yet at the same time I slowly began to understand the incredible power of helping other people. I began to see a third way between the fantasies of freedom and total annihilation. The endless confrontations with nightmares opened my other eyes to the shadows I held within. Most importantly, I accepted that sometimes the pain was horrible and I stopped trying to anticipate that or wish it away. I held a rock and took it one breath at a time. I checked in every few breaths, maybe changed the rock to the other hand. Breathe. Right now. This is what is happening. Time helped the reality replace the fantasy. I could live in the cracks. Maybe I could bloom where I was planted too. What if I was ok enough?

It is what it is

There’s no snake now, no enemy, no answer either. I have a thing, like you might, or someone you know does. I manage it as best I can and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I forget I have it, other times, well, I still have that rock to hold. My road in the last ten years has been hard work, and followed a river of tears. Along the way I’ve changed and (hopefully) grown. I wish you all the best on your journey, just remember, we’re all in this together.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

A sober assessment

One simple rule $Before we move off the topic of debt, there are some positive things to share. I find this subject quite emotional – as I’m sure many people do – so let’s clear the air a little with some practicalities.

One simple rule $ imageIn my past, I’ve been through the experience of some credit card debt going bad (which happened to coincide with some poor decisions about tax also coming home to roost). Out the other side of that experience I’m cautious about spending money I don’t have on hand. ‘Vigilant’ would not be too strong a word. ‘Terrified’ might even be appropriate on some days! I worry about it. I don’t really have much now and yet still I worry about it.

I worry about you having it. I do. It is too much. Debt is hurting us. It is one of the heaviest shackles stopping us from living a life of deliberate liberation, and it is voluntary.

Some people seem to think of credit card debt as a kind of charity to themselves. ‘Thank you credit card for helping out for the cost of a pad thai on Saturday night!’ You might be out of cash and craving those sweet noodles, but actually, unless you’re as scrupulous at paying yourself back in full and as quickly as you’d expect any of your friends to be, in reality you’re in a Ponzi scheme with your bank, and the house never loses.

Let’s talk about getting out of debt. That’s a pretty obvious next step conversationally but let’s not go into paying down or clearing it off, not budgets. Not haggling over interest or swapping balances and accounts. Not how to expand or grow your income or start a business on the side. Those things are all great tactics and they can really help you but I’m not the right person to talk about those. Honestly, there’s just huge amounts of useful information and lots of knowledgeable, well-meaning people to help you with all those things online already. Hit up Doctor Google with a few simple questions and you’ll be inundated with options and links. It is easy to find an approach that works for you. Just be aware of anything that people are asking you to pay for!

What is there left to talk about? There’s a key truth to debt that hardly gets any headlines. You could be forgiven for thinking that it is a secret. It wasn’t bad luck that gave my phone number to a collection agency. It wasn’t not having education or a job or support if I’d asked for it or an understanding of how to do a budget. I was lazy, busy, a bit selfish, maybe arrogant that I could do it differently – you know – normal. Even so, when faced with the bottom line, despite having the kind of habits that meant a lotto win would end up as more debt, I knew this truth and I bet you do too. It is just one simple rule and it works. I warn you now, it’s a tough one. It is not sexy. It is not huge glittering fun.

It is this: live within your means.

I know, right? Bor-ring. I can feel your eyes rolling back in your head. Stay with me on this one. I think it is radical. Daring. In this age of rampant entitlement, what could be more personally and politically powerful than to disengage from the consumer culture except on occasions of deliberate choice? Okay, that might be a bit of a long bow to draw, but think about it. Why do we immediately reject this obvious truth? Because it requires decisions and choices. It implicitly asks us to do without some things. Our fear of missing out (so common now it just goes by ‘FOMO’) immediately gives us an eye-twitch but reality is all about limits. We are finite beings on a finite planet. Our time is finite, our income is very clearly finite. Knowing this, doesn’t it seem almost childish to continue to believe in ‘later there’ll be more’?

That’s not to say that there’s no such thing as hard work that pays off, or ideas that meet a need and create happy customers, or great services and products you can build and grow from your own capacity to learn and create. It is just that winning lotto isn’t a plan. There is no magical unicorn going to come along and poop golden nuggets onto your welcome mat. Once we face our limits we get to make informed decisions about how to spend our time and the resources we already have. It is not just reasonable, in this day and age it is revolutionary.

Next week I’ll share a tool that will give you a glimpse through your blind spot, or a whisper from your fairy godmother about your particular secrets and self-destructive habits with money. You can skip it if you’re scared, or ask someone to hold your hand.
We can get through this together.

Desire’s dark side

Lustful affairs bring consequences. The lovechild of the compulsion to consume is the unwanted bastard offspring Debt.

Oh Debt. We are not shy about conceiving you.

Australians lead the world with an average household debt (which includes mortgages) footprint of 1.8 – this means that people are spending nearly twice what they earn. All of their income and 80% of a whole ‘nother wage. Staggering. (ref ABS Data May 2014 )  No really.

‘Yeah’ you say ‘but that’s including houses and everybody knows that the Australian housing market is overvalued. That’s why I rent!’ Ok fine.
Australians owe billions on credit cards, about $4 400 per person.

Just for fun, this clock (ASIC Moneysmart ) shows how much Australians currently owe on the plastic. Your factoid for today is that 49% of those who carry $5,000 or more in credit card debt have a degree or a diploma. Oh wait, last one! Two in five people have no idea what interest rate they are paying on their card (and that was in March 2013! ).

Charles Dickens quote from David Copperfield

Much as those figures stimulate the curiosity and sound all newsy they actually distract from the human story that sits behind them. It is all too easy to evaluate yourself immediately against those figures so you can dismiss them. Relief – ‘mine’s lower!’ Or to judge – ‘how could they let it get to that?!’ I chose to include them because they’re real. Most Australians of age have one or more credit cards. They owe money on them that potentially they will never ever actually pay out. Or like dieters who know better, they yo-yo in and out of debt on the cards in tides of recrimination and stoic, forced budgets.

None of us is alone with our debt baby. We live in culture where it is normal to carry debt. That’s what we call it, not ‘tortured by’ or ‘enslaved by’ an endless burden. No, we just casually ‘carry’ it. We consider it part of the ‘cost of living’. Everyone does it. Those who do not have a credit card have an uneasy aura of either a do-gooder or a bankrupt (depending a bit on the tone of voice used to convey the information) but are a bit creepy either way. Not someone you’re going to listen to anyway.

Would you listen to yourself though? If your future self could tunnel through the time vortex and whisper in your ear, what would they say to you about how you left them holding the crying, hungry baby? Can the future you remember the emergency purchase or convenience of takeaway dinner or the money you saved by buying on sale with credit? Did you ever fall in love with a book that you simply must have only to get it home and put it on top of the pile of other books you haven’t yet read? I did. Many times.

When ANZ handed my debt over to a hard-nosed collection agency and I had to own up to my past indiscretions there was no way I could remember a single thing that had been so important it had to be bought with that card. My past self had blithely given me a big stinking problem to deal with and I hated her for it. If that’s not a perfect example of provisional living going bad, I don’t know what is. I don’t know that I would have listened to future me though, if I had tried to deny those lustful urges. In the end, it was an affair that took me years to recover from.

Why do we assume that our future selves will somehow have more resources, more ability to deal with the consequences of our actions? Because we’ve inadvertently subscribed to the doctrine of progress. We do it in our personal lives, we do it in our communities when we build houses on every next block of land, leaving no space for anything else. We do it as a nation when we use every bit of energy we can grab because ‘they will figure out a new technology soon and we’ll all have limitless lives and won’t have to work’ or something that sounds like winning the ‘infinite planet lotto’. Not going to happen. Addictive and easy, sure, but not real.

The reality is that it is impossible to be free when we are in the thrall of endless compound interest on debt. In the next quiet moment you have to yourself, ask your future self what it is that you both want most out of life.

It is not going to be more debt.

Kiss your loved ones and plan a different way forward. We’ve got a lot ahead of us.

Consumption compulsion

Muddling forward into our shared future, let’s have a cuppa and talk about the elephant in the room. Lust.

Yes, you’ve felt it. Unbidden, from deep in you rises that heady, powerful urge to purchase. New things. Shiny things. Perfect, desirable, cool, promising things. We have an affair with that orgasmic moment of transaction. The Purchase. *sigh*

This is what gets us into trouble in the first place. It is easy to believe that we’re all immune to the lure of the marketing demons and advertising parasites, yet our houses, garages and storage units are bursting with gadgets and gear that we’ve barely used. We’re cheating on the side with stuff, and it’s an affair we swear off and crawl back to. I’m not pointing any fingers or throwing any stones here, I’m coming clean and asking for help.

It starts off, as every affair does, innocently. You see it in a picture alongside an article, or as a prop in a film or tv series. Maybe you notice it, maybe you don’t. Then you spot it in another feed or your favourite blog or pinterest board. Oh, here it comes, the momentum is building and it is already too late. You click through. You note the hashtag. You check the site and are appalled at the price, and then all over again at the shipping. You close the window. Swear off but you know you’ll be back.

Whatever that item is, you DO NOT NEED IT.

You don’t. You just want it.

A friend and I were talking this week about notebooks (We’re mad for stationery. Don’t judge.) and we’ve both been “looking at” (you know what this is code for) a particular name brand ‘notebook’ that is actually just a cover that you buy inserts for. The covers are expensive and hard to get. Perfect. They’re also not all that practical for how I live and work. Even better. Plus, they’re made of leather. Watch two committed vegetarians rationalise how this is ok because at least it will be long wearing. Oh dear.

Why? Why do we sometimes want these name-brand items, no matter what? How does it become, out of nowhere, such an urgent passion? We can drive ourselves almost crazy with the craving, even though we know it can cripple us financially (or send us into a spiral of unmanageable credit card debt).

I wish I knew how this happens, so I could unhook from it. I feel it *all the time* it is like a constant undercurrent in our culture. Watching a lot less TV does help – but now the internet is littered with visually driven content – and these ‘notebooks’ seem to be everywhere that aspirational images are and nowhere in my mundane, suburban reality. They exotically promise creativity, freedom, and a life unfettered by the necessity to carry anything other than this in your tiny, light bag. Probably you’re too cool for a bag because you’re such a free spirit. You travel so light you just live out of a pocket.

Let me tell you why I’m a tiny bit bitter. It is because I’ve been down this road before. Let me introduce you to The Filofax.

My 20 year old Filofax (almost exactly the same size and concept) is still in perfect condition but now just looks daggy and old-school. So 80s! Yet at the time, it was the same, I burned for a Filofax. Burned. Planned it for so long, shopped around (pre-Internet!). The fact that the card slots in it are US size and none of my cards ever, EVER fit was shaming but I pretended that I didn’t care. I still use it at home to keep all my friends’ addresses in (yes, by hand, on paper!) but I would never carry it around (like we all used to) because it is just too heavy and really it is a back-up for my phone (yes, before there were mobiles!). Even carrying my B5 journal feels bulky and I sometimes see people with kindles smirking at me. I have a little pad of A6ish post-its in the back of the journal and that works really well for any notes on the go, so I know I would never really use this notebook and even so, I STILL WANT ONE.

For now, I recognise that my affair with compulsive consumption is destructive. The seductive allure of fresh pages; or the glamour of pristine, unscuffed bags; the excitement and promise of exactly the right shoes is the frisson that hooks me in and keeps me coming back. I’m getting better. I tell myself little white lies (“I can’t afford it”) or keep a 30 day list. But what really keeps me on the straight and narrow is the thought of that perfect, beautiful almost useless Filofax on my cluttered desk at home.

I’m going to get that Filofax out tonight and give her a glass of wine and gentle rub. Make it up to her. Let her know I still appreciate her patented system and secure papers and useless card slots. Most of all, I’m going to thank her for being a lesson well learned from days long past about how lust fulfilled fades so quickly and leaves a wake of bedraggled leftovers cast aside to make way for tomorrow’s rising favourites.

Let us settle for love and honesty in the face of these incessant temptations. You have enough. We are already enough.

Confessional quirk

Over the last two weeks we’ve looked at themes of provisional living and choice. Like all victors I get to write my own history so they’ve been about fairly positive aspects of that experience. Both focussed around ‘stuff’ as that is an external thing and it can be quantified and measured. So reassuring. Stuff has let me start exploring the topic of freedom, which is what I think we’re edging towards talking about.

Before we get there, it is worthwhile talking about a choice that didn’t go so well and some payoffs from provisional living that haven’t been so easy to give up.

I haven’t given up making voluntary contributions to my superannuation account. Even though I know it is essentially futile. I still want to believe that somewhere in a future I might get to are golden days of leisure where I am ‘retired’ but still physically functional. I *know* right?! That retirement age went up to 70 years of age already. As the Boomers’ demographic bulge really hits the retirement costs wall, that will be bumped up again, we all know it.

I haven’t given up on fantasising about which set of high-end luggage I will buy (I favour Rimowa) when I start travelling the world in this mythical parallel life where I have the same income but somehow no costs of living or debt responsibilities (and I don’t get homesick every 5 days).

I keep promising myself that *next* spring I’ll get the garden going properly and get back into growing at least tomatoes so that I’m not totally dependent on other people and fossil fuels for every single thing I eat. I believe there’s still plenty of time to get that organised and somehow it doesn’t quite make it up my list of priorities, but you can guarantee I’ll rant about toms being $10 a kilo come February.

This little list of hypocrisies is barely indicative of how many deals there are still in place. Maybe you’ve got some deals of your own – where rationally you know one thing, but behaviourally you just keep hooking in to doing the thing you’ve always done. Maybe you’ve ‘made’ a whole bunch of choices without ever really thinking about it. Why aren’t you vegetarian? Why do you have a credit card? Why do you watch tv in the evening? Why do you assume this is the only way it can be?

Last year, as these questions began piling up, I tried to find the unified theory that would answer these conundrums and deliver unto me a blazing, pure path of honesty, integrity and clarity. I hoped that wanting this very very intensely and visualising it as though it had already appeared would help to manifest this life-changing awakening. I knew in my heart that when it came, I would be incandescent in every sense, the wisdom of all the ages would illuminate my problems and my failings with pure love, and they would melt into submission in the face of ultimate reality.

Beautiful no?

Ah, beautiful indeed. While I waited for this magnificence to manifest, I kept working hard and diligently at everything. I felt the pain of my failings and of my compromises. I felt like a fraud at the deals I made to keep going. I pushed through the fatigue of commuting, the hollowness of a meaningless job and the maintained the façade of a good modern cog – I was productive.

Without making a choice, I had chosen denial. I was, with the very best of intentions, breaking myself.

Eventually, I failed at breaking myself. In the aftermath, I realised my golden answer, my unified theory, my ‘access all areas’ lanyard was simply not coming. (Let me be clear, this is (or will be) a Very Good Thing even though at the time it was hard to handle.)

Where I am struggling, is that in-between the pushing to make it so, and the failing to change, I’m in a place of confusion. Some things (stuff!) are under my control and some things (climate change) just kindof aren’t. No matter how much I reduce my carbon footprint and make my boyfriend think twice about his use of the clothes-dryer I can’t stop the polar ice-caps melting. If no one is going to listen to Al Gore without getting snarky about what car he drives, who am I to try to change the world while I own a car at all? Hmmm.

More than confusion. I just gave up. But that’s not living from my values either. The sun keeps coming up each morning and the wheel of this year is turning. I am asking, not for a golden answer now, but for a way to muddle forward. I’m asking for sustainable freedom and my deepest wish is that you and I will find it together.