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.

Overcommitted

overcommittedEver been overcommitted? Ever found yourself juggling time madly multitasking and pushing your own limits to get everything done? Of course you have, and how silly does it feel to realise you’re the one who signed up for this storm of activity. Sometimes it takes a lightning bolt to show you the terrain that you’re stumbling over. That terrain is actually flat – you’re tripping over your own haste.

You’re in charge of deciding what your time is best spent on, but sometimes you’re the wrong person to make that decision. You don’t think to put your hand up and ask for help, after all, “You can manage“.  So you push on, managing to get by and catch yourself at the stumbles, head up, and carry on through the stress.

Overcommitted is a warning sign, it is a hand up, asking for help. If you’ve felt these first warning signs of storms in your life, take a deep breathe and pause. You have a choice here to give yourself a break. So reconnect with your commitment to meaningful and mindful activity. Quite possibly, a lot of the expectation you’re overcommitted by is from you. You got here from your desire to get it all done, make all the achievements and meet the high expectations of those demanding inner critics. Let me remind you – they are insatiable. They will always have a little thing where you weren’t good enough, didn’t do enough, let yourself down.

Overcommitted is a downward spiral

What might be next? Your health or your close relationships as you take for granted the fuel that is sustaining you and the people who understand what you’re reaching for? Don’t let there be collateral damage from wanting to do well, come back to your centre and recommit to less. Evaluate and select only that which is most meaningful to you right now. Let go of the expectations that you’re drowning under that don’t serve your higher purpose and those that are not in alignment with your intention.

You are not a failure. You’re someone’s beloved, so remind yourself that you can only do, what a person can reasonably do, and that is enough.

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.

Boldly go in your direction

keep-calm-and-boldly-goWe’ve talked about starting over and it is worth touching on that idea again, because the pressure is often to do Big Things. You know, Those Boldly go where no man has gone before expectations*. That’s fun for a while if you are an intergalactic adventurer, or a woman. (I mean I even got to make a pennyfarthing where no wo-man had gone before) but at a certain point, most of us just want some help with the basic “boldly go” part.  Those first steps or stumble in a new (for us) journey are their own bold adventure. It could be asking for help to plan an overseas holiday when you’ve never left the city but everyone around you is infecting you with their itchy feet.

Taking action in alignment with your own values put you back into the driver seat of your own life. Freedom is in being bold on your own terms. Maybe committing to a slow shift in your eating habits, or starting to go for walks again or maybe a gym session or saving money. Whatever it is for you, where you’ve had a hint of fear, or worry about what other people are going to say, or if you’ll look silly, or fail, or or or … well, that’s an opportunity for some bold baby stepping.

Boldly go (but in bitty bubby steps)

We yearn for big wins and particularly successful people who are used to achievement forget that starting over is all about starting small. By small, we mean really small. Simple. Two minute tasks, being mindful, remembering to make a choice rather than react. These are the baby-what’s the next thing I could do that takes me towards what I want? Take a little action, bitty bubby ones but bold, feel bold. You’re courageous! You’re brave! You can totally do this!

Be bold baby!

By the way, it doesn’t even have to be about fulfilling your dreams, maybe just do the things that are bugging you and that let you simplify that endless to-do list.

Sometimes being bold is saying “no, thanks.”

No to more commitments, things that serve other people, or things that aren’t helping you get your own stuff sorted. Maybe being bold for you is asking for some help (maybe from all those people you’ve already been helping all this time?) or be bold and be brutally honest with yourself about what is really important to you.

So muddle onwards in your own direction and boldly be yourself. There honestly is no one better suited to it than you.

*Like discovering new galaxies or intelligent alien life. No pressure, right?

Heal the fear

healLast week we talked about fear a little, about how it might be possible to make friends with it. The reason we took that path is because another odd thing about the way fear works in us is that we hold onto the habits of being fearful and that habit can be just as destructive as the initial state of fear was. What if we could heal the hurt our fear left behind? Is that possible? I believe it is.

Fear scars our memory

Mostly we fear things that we believe are uncomfortable or painful. Public speaking, visiting the dentist, cleaning the pool filter. And so we put off doing them ever, ever again. fear can attach itself to so many things, and to little things (and that’s a trick too – you don’t want to own up to being afraid of something) it is easy to say instead “I’m too busy”, “too tired”, “Not right now” and we rush on, pushing our way through all the other things there are to do.  That’s why making friends is a good first step, but it isn’t the only step. You also need to be gentle with yourself for a while. We try and rush healing in our culture. It doesn’t work. We don’t work that way. Then you’re ready to work some magic and make something new in the place the fear used to be. Unless we transform the experience, we re-live it. Even if we’re never in the same situation again, we carry it around and act as though it is real and that is not freedom. That is being frozen by fear.

Transform your state of fear

Taking action, being courageous, facing up to the things you’re frightened of, these thing have value, but be clear that you haven’t transformed your fear. The habit of it, the scar from it will still be there, the pattern may repeat. We want to shift from a state of fear, into a state of peace, or safety or trust. From these states we can heal. From these states we have a chance to remake our patterns. There is a way out and you can do it. You can heal the fear that restricts you, that follows you around like a cloud.

This is your personal adventure. You are the magician with the power to shift your state, ask yourself what you need to make this happen, ask for help from the universe or people you know to bring what you need together, give yourself time to brew the right potion. Mindfulness about your intent and your existing habits is useful. Accept the help that will come. Accept the uncertainty of change. These vital steps put you onto the cusp of transformation. Your heart aches for comfort, but the mind creates the labyrinths.

The mind is where the magic happens, there in the cauldron of your skull.

Rinse and repeat

Healing is not a one-off thing. Habits form over time, and they take time to dismantle. This is not a ‘tick and flick’ exercise, you’ll be spiraling through these experiences. One thing leads to another, one memory raises three more. Humans are complex and we like to layer things. So go easy, pace yourself. You can heal, but you’ll need to give yourself time.

The payoff

Ironically, by the time you’re ready to cash-in the benefits of all this self-healing, you may have forgotten there even was a final stage! There is – all that energy that went into fear and worry is available for something else – something new. You might be so relieved to be basically fear and worry free that it feels like enough. Well and good, rest there for a while, when you’re ready the world will be waiting for you.

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.

Relighting your candle

Do you feel that your flame is flickering?  This week we’ll take a look at relighting your candle. Here are five simple things you can do to help yourself get through tough times.

One candle is lit from another.Just so we’re all clear, if you find yourself fantasising about or indeed planning hurting people (including yourself) (either physically or emotionally) then you’re not well and you need help. Yes, sometimes bad shit happens, but hurting yourself or others is a sign that the situation you’re in is extreme and that you need some professional help – please ask for it.

Also, if you’re feeling blue, or very dark for more than a week or two and with no other extenuating circumstances, then you’re possibly suffering depression and once again, please ask for help.

A lot of times our society doesn’t provide  useful guidelines and it can leave people floundering with burdens that are simply too heavy. Simple rules with clear instructions are easy to follow. Sometimes, particularly when things are bad, you need an objective measure and those ones work. I’m not a medical professional, so we’ll leave dealing with the extreme end of the experience spectrum to the professionals, they will unburden you in stages and then help you to heal.

You matter

When it is all stacking up against you and you can’t seem to get a lucky break at all it is easy to become very despondent and give up. It might make sense to give up on your project, postpone it, modify it or sell it off to someone else, but don’t give up on yourself. Try not to take it personally. Yes, of course it happened to you (and there’s not much that’s more personal in that sense), but you still exist independent of the meaning you (and or our culture) may have ascribed to your project. This is a good opportunity to remember and utilise the quincunx and put your circles back into the right scale and context for you. If you like, try this on too, “all life is sacred“, that includes you (not just dolphins,pandas and enlightened gurus) and you don’t need to do anything to earn that. You just are.

Tough situations are not impossible

There is some comfort in knowing that in all the generations of humans that have gone before us, in the billions of lives that have been lived, others have survived situations this tough, and they probably did so without air-conditioning and smartphones. If you’re the competitive type, this idea is particularly helpful. For many of us, just knowing that it can be done is enough to help us keep getting up when we get knocked down. Just try again. Hard work is what grown-ups do, you can handle it. You won’t like it, it is not as nice as snoozing on the couch, but you can get through it.

Reject the idea of perfection

Oh, you want to do it the right way, and that’s what’s causing delays and hardships and suffering? Are you sure it is right  and not just a choice you might be making? Very rarely is there only a single right way to complete a project in your life or handle a setback. There are normally as many ways as there are people. Your unique outlook, skills, network, humour and style will see you muddle through. Don’t voluntarily add the burden of conforming to the illusion of perfection.

Be a light to others

Helping someone else can and does give you strength to face your own situation anew. Help in an area where you’re not under pressure, where your situation is strong or complete. It will remind you that you have things to be grateful for and that there is likely to be someone out there who would be willing to help you. There’s a light inside people that comes back into their eyes when things turn around for them. It can be infectious, but you only catch it by acting on purpose.

Keep your hands busy

Dwelling in your pain and hardship amplifies it. Literally keeping your hands busy (sewing, cooking, gardening, woodworking etc) edges you out of that stuck place. Meaningful activity gives your mind something else to occupy itself and stimulates your problem-solving and coping abilities. Combine this with helping others if you like and do handiwork for a charity. Can’t use your hands? Find away to serve with what you do have – read to someone who is lonely, walk a bedridden person’s dog. Not busy so you’re exhausted (unless that is likely to help) but active, engaged with the real world, not living completely inside your head.

Hot wax

Candles drip hot wax. That’s a fact of life. You’ll have excuses about these suggestions and a lot of it will be to do with discomfort. If that discomfort is coming from your ego, or an attachment to the status of being hard done by being able to blame others, this is going to take extra bravery on your part. Someone very wise pointed out that “once we’ve asked to be healed, our unhealed places rise to the surface.” You’re underway now and the wax and the falling down and the frustrations are all part of the mess of it, but you’re back on fire, you matter, and the situation is not impossible.

Debt grief

Did you hope we were done with the melancholy subject of debt?
Not yet.
Something came up from the readings that was unexpected and bears airing. People have a lot of hidden grief about their debt. It is out of sight, but not out of mind and weighs heavy on hearts.

All that material abundance has come at a greater price than we were told at the checkout when we punched in our PIN.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius. Wikipedia.

There are the obvious initial thoughts when buyer’s remorse kicks in or we get home and find there’s simply no where left to put something new. Deeper than that we think of the days of sunshine lost to our grey cubicles and fluorescent lights. We know that the youth of our hearts and the blushes of love are drained by uniforms and timetables and the indignities and compromises that come with not feeling free to walk away from a job. Perhaps you have figured out how much your modest mortgage will cost over the course of your loan and what each of those dollars will cost you in time in your cubicle or uniform. It is beyond sobering, it is a painful and softly brutalising moment.

There are many articles and blogs addressing how the five stages of grief relate directly to debt and I encourage you to get some support for where you are up to with yours because it is hard to see your way forward while you’re stuck in sorrow.

Ram Dass in his recent post on grief spoke about finding some solace in realising that “we only grieve for what we love” and in that moment there was a terrible clashing noise for me. None of us believes we love money, but in our culture, where we treat wealth in the form of money as the portal to fulfilment, the portal to all the things we do love to indulge in, debt does brings with it a trailing veil of grief. We must feed the screaming baby at the expense of current or future desires. Fear of missing out, yes, and the harsh reality that the money is not coming back, and worse, needs more money yet. We are not done working for someone else. Working to their timetable and to no foreseeable end.

How can we be released from this cycle?

Is it even possible?

Do we have the power to release ourselves?

Yes, we do have that power. As with all swords it comes with two edges so you’ll need to be sure you can handle it if you want to pick it up. Next week we’ll explore those edges.

 

Image source and © information: “Serpiente alquimica” by anonymous ; uploader Carlos adaneroThis work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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.

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.