A Life in Debt

Last week’s post didn’t end up exactly where I intended it to, veering closer to polemic than I first envisioned. I’m okay with that; part of figuring out a response to your predicament includes identifying the problems, and part of motivating others to stay on an alternate path is reiterating the devastating consequences of the well-traveled one. Still, it’s important to write also about the positive aspects of that alternate path, not just the lack of certain negative ones.

To tease this out, then, let’s consider what’s thought of as normal in this country. (Not, I should note, what necessarily is normal.) It’s considered normal, or at least ideal, for an adult to have their own personal vehicle; to be gainfully employed, hopefully making a decent wage and receiving benefits; to have a smart phone and constant or near-constant access to the internet; to have a variety of screens at home that provide a variety of on-demand digital distractions; to have a variety of “labor-saving” appliances, such as a washing machine and dryer, a dishwasher, a microwave, and so on; to be up-to-date with a variety of wide-scale cultural obsessions, generally centered around television shows, movies, sports, internet memes, and celebrities; to have an online presence; and to be available to others via phone or internet at most all hours of the day.

That list could be modified—particularly in accord with the geographic location of any individual within America or the industrialized world at large—by removing specific items from it or adding others, or doing both, but I think it takes a pretty close stab at the cultural vision of what an average middle-class American life may look like. Conducting a close scrutiny of it and allowing yourself a few minutes to think about the implications of these expectations reveals two related results stemming from pursuit of the above: a need for a high level of energy and resource usage (more commonly thought of in terms of money) and a distinct lack of distraction-free time that can be used for reflection, relaxation, and renewal.

To my mind, I consider this two different types of debt. The first comes in the form of money. It may manifest as actual debt—a mortgage, a car loan, credit card debt, and so on—or it may come in the form of a necessary and expected amount of income. In traditional parlance, this isn’t debt, of course. However, I don’t think it’s outside the bounds of reason to think of it in such terms. By committing yourself to a certain level of monthly bills, you restrict your economic and financial resiliency, you create certain real and imagined limits on your life choices and—should your income fail at any point to match your level of incurred expenses—you increase the likelihood of taking on actual debt or, at best, forcing hard choices upon yourself (and your family, if you have one), with the attendant likelihood of inflicting emotional, psychological, and/or physical hardship.

Looking back at our imagine American middle-class lifestyle, there actually are quite a lot of bills that come due with it. Housing is expensive in much of this country, whether you own or rent. Labor-saving appliances cost money, either through direct purchase or through increased rental rates, and they require a steady flow of energy and resource usage that typically imposes costs of its own. Smart phones cost quite a bit themselves and come with expensive monthly payments for their use; the same with televisions, laptops, tablets, other devices, and the various monthly subscriptions for internet, cable, and other forms of entertainment that come with them. Cars are a massive expense in their purchase, maintenance, and fueling, and the common desire to have nice cars and new ones only adds to that expense. All of these markers of a good American living add up to quite the monthly bills, thus requiring a steady source of reliable income, which further requires a series of specific and limited life choices for those hoping to maintain these comforts, conveniences, and markers of success.

That’s one form of debt that stems from a standard American lifestyle. The other form of debt such a lifestyle incurs is a time deficit. Granted, a middle-class American, at a literal level, has just as much time as an upper-class or lower-class one. We all get 24 hours per day and the difference in the final tally only can be calculated once we’re dead. However, time that is free of distraction has its own important qualities, and that is something that appears to be ever more lacking in America and much of the industrial world.

Estimates vary, as they always do, but Americans on average spend many hours per day staring at screens. A recent study suggests an average of more than 10 hours per day, in fact. That is a lot of time. The reasons for staring at screens are multitude, including for one’s work, reading the news, reading delightful blogs such as this one, writing delightful blogs such as this one, looking at pretty pictures, watching colorful shapes move around on a piece of glass, exercising one’s screen-poking skills, or perhaps watching an event or occurrence that is literally taking place directly in front of you but is somehow just so much more compelling when viewed via a screen instead of via the emittance of light from the actual objects or beings you’re watching. But whatever the reasons we’re staring at screens, that time is usually lacking in thoughtful reflection and instead loaded with carefully designed distraction and stimulation.

With each passing year, it seems that we pack ourselves full of more and more information, but at the detriment of knowledge. We spend hours following the exploits of celebrities and politicians and fictional characters, but we spend quite a few less hours reflecting on our own exploits. We keep up to date with the latest internet memes, track our social media feeds, and watch endless hours of fiction in all kinds of forms, but we often know little about the working of the actual physical world around us. Furthermore, we stay so busy all year round, we often have little or no time to reflect on the ways we are living our lives and what kind of lives we are living as a result.

Allow me an indulgence here. When I worked on vegetable farms, my life took on a seasonal cadence that I came to both love and appreciate. The rhythm of my work varied dramatically throughout the course of the year. It would begin to ramp up in the late winter and early spring, with light and relatively relaxing days of work. The number of hours worked and the intensity of that work increased throughout the spring. Once into summer, I typically worked long and hard days, ended them somewhere between tired and exhausted, slept hard, awoke early (though not as early as a lot of farmers) and went back at it. By late summer and into early fall, the work became consistently exhausting, both because of the long days and heavy physical labor, but also through the accumulation of the season’s physical and emotional tolls.

But then fall would settle in and the pace begin to relax. Farmers markets ended, the CSA would wrap up, all the fall plantings were in, and the harvests would start to ease back. The work load lightened throughout the fall and the exhaustion I felt transformed into something lighter, into a much more simple tiredness. The days shortened, both in terms of hours worked and the actual length of the days, the physical world in sync with my working experience. As the days shortened and the work lightened, my tiredness would begin to transition into renewal and reinvigoration, and that would accelerate as we put the farm to bed and I moved into a winter of rest and renewal.

The winters were key. They offered weeks of little work and lots of relaxation, including time for thought and reflection. There were still chores, of course, with animals needing to be taken care of, a few crops left to tend on occasion, clean up to be done, and improvements and repairs to be made before the next growing season. But the pace was dramatically different and the time deficit turned into a surplus. It was in those months that I often did my best thinking, and it was in those months that I was able to take stock of my life, the way I lived it, what was working for me and what was failing—and then to make adjustments to my life as necessary.

My experience with the standard American lifestyle is that such a seasonal rhythm and, in particular, an annual period of time surplus is a rarity. Most of us work jobs that continue at much the same pace throughout the year, with little variation and certainly no regard for seasons. For those of us who actually receive vacation time, we often use it to pack in non-work experiences that range from fun and refreshing to miserable and disappointing, but that too often leave little time or space for thought and reflection. And for the time we have available to use that isn’t spent at work—our evenings and weekends, or the equivalent for those who don’t work standard work weeks—we often pack it with so many distractions, digital and otherwise, that we’re left with little time to stop, think, and reflect.

That is our time debt. Coupled with the aforementioned money debt, the results of the standard American lifestyle is often a tiring life of busyness and distraction, with little time for rest and relaxation, and which is often straining at the edge of what can be comfortably obtained within our financial and time constraints. It commonly pushes us to the edge and reduces or eliminates our personal and financial flexibility, so that if anything goes wrong, it will manifest closer to a disaster than a setback. Thus, it takes an exhaustion already stoked by financial constraints and lack of time for rest and relaxation and compounds it with fear and concern of factors that are largely (though not completely) outside of our control—such as political, economic, and ecological stability.

There is, in my estimation, a much better way to live, and that’s by increasing our resiliency through a reduction of our money and time debts as defined here. We can look at many of those standard ways of living a middle-class American life that we are currently engaged in and choose not to accept them. Perhaps that means sharing a car with one or more other adults, or living without one entirely. Perhaps it means ditching the smart phone and its attendant distractions, freeing up more time to think and reflect and relax. Perhaps that means not spending your money on a dishwasher and instead doing your dishes by hand; or foregoing the dryer and hang drying your clothes instead; or donating the microwave and reintroducing cooking into your life, using real ingredients. It may mean eliminating your internet connection and either going without or making due with the library’s free one; letting your laptop die and not replacing it; killing your cable subscription and either dramatically cutting back on how much television you watch, or eliminating it entirely.

All of these actions can introduce new resiliency and flexibility into your life. Most of them will reduce your monthly bills—some of them dramatically—and many of them will provide you with additional, distraction-free time that you can use to relax or think, reflect on your life and consider better ways to live it, or introduce new and fulfilling activities that leave you happier and healthier. They can also push you farther back from the edge: a reduction in monthly bills is essentially an income you can keep even if you lose your job. The more financial and psychological flexibility you have in your life, the less concerned you are with elements of the world that are largely out of your control, and the more capable you are of dealing with them if they play out in a way that inflicts damage on your life. The more you reduce these debts, the more you turn possible future calamities into possible future setbacks.

It’s that latter aspect, to my mind, that is one of the most important benefits of living a life with fewer distractions, fewer income requirements, and more flexibility and freedom. I expect the future to be hard due to our very dumb collective decisions. That concerns me. But, if I’m honest, it concerns me much less than if I did not know how to grow my own food, if I didn’t garden, if I did not have experience living on far less money than I currently make, if I had car payments and a large mortgage payment and credit card payments, if I lived paycheck to paycheck, if I wasn’t happier walking places than driving places, if I invested my self-worth in having certain material possessions or projecting a certain image of myself to the world that was rooted in financial success, if I didn’t have a strong understanding of how I use energy and resources and in what ways I could cut back if need be, and so on down the list. All of those elements of my life are pieces that I have learned over the preceding years by actively rejecting many of the assumptions and expectations of modern society and instead learning different ways of living—some of which I’ve stuck with and some I haven’t, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Personally, I value flexibility and freedom, and I am a person who is not fond of taking dramatic risks. I want to have a certain amount of control over my life, or at least feel that I do. And what I have found is that living with fewer distractions, in ways that require less money, being more familiar with physical labor, and having a greater understanding of exactly what it takes to literally make my living leaves me happier, healthier, more in control of my life both at an actual level and at a perceived level, more flexible in the life decisions I can make, more relaxed, and less stressed. Both the life I live today and the lives I’ve lived over the past decade—all of which rejected to some degree or another modern American and industrial assumptions of what makes for a good life—have proven far more satisfying and rewarding than every version of the standard American or modern industrialized lifestyle that I have attempted to live before that.

In other words, living with less is a better, happier, and more fulfilling way to live. Period. It’s not a life of deprivation. The standard American lifestyle, as a matter of fact, is the actual life of deprivation.

As this blog moves forward, we’ll be talking more about that at both the individual and the national level, because it’s not just the individual American lifestyle that deprives us of happiness, fulfillment, and good work—it’s the national manifestations of our culture’s misguided beliefs at the economic, political, and cultural levels that do, as well. More on that soon.

7 Comments

  1. Your essay reminded me of this, from Ivan Illich:

    “The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 percent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of lifetime for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.”

    From: http://ranprieur.com/readings/illichcars.html

    From his book, Energy and Equity…. I saw Illich back in the 1970s, when he was getting on in years… A most entertaining and intelligent man.

    • That is a wonderful quote, Ric. You’ve inspired me to track down some Ivan Illich reading material. I believe I’ve seen him quoted before, possibly in the comments at the Archdruid Report, but I’ve never actually read the man. It reminds me of Thoreau’s thought experiment about how to properly calculate the speed of travel.

      Personally, I like to walk. My partner and I do share a car (we downsized from each having our own when we moved in together recently) and I basically only use it when I drive out to the coast for my job. Otherwise, I walk most everywhere here in Portland, and it’s the rate of speed I most enjoy—including biking. I may write a post on that at some point.

  2. Another good post! I agree – I’ve become much happier by divesting myself of that Better Homes and Credit Cards lifestyle: TV, movies, debt, dishwasher, microwave, new clothes & shoes, smartphones – the list goes on… I know I could go much farther in this direction if I had more strength and stamina, but for a disabled person, I have few labor-saving devices (and honestly, I feel it’s much more restful and QUIET to wash dishes and to sweep with a broom rather than vacuuming). I’ve always tended toward that, and toward wanting to make my livelihood literally (ie: rather than as a wage slave)… but when younger, I lived faster (used to live in NYC!!) However, now that our society has gotten incredibly more rushed and complex over the past several decades, the need for quiet time, few distractions, etc. has become a health essential! I do not know how others are living that life – it sounds totally insane! I know I spend more time at the computer than I should but it’s still far less than the number you quoted, and that also means I’m not buzzing with others’ images and music/beats – I find that letting go of the passive entertainment means my own mind has time to create… and that’s been wonderful for me this year! Without blocks of quiet time, though, I’d never get creative writing done…

    En fin – this is a question from an old, memory-impaired reader: is there any chance you can make it so I can read your post on this comment page? I know there were other points I wanted to comment on, but… pffft! :-}

    • Hi Cathy,

      Yes, you noted something that I didn’t in this post: the more of other people’s images, thoughts, ideas, etc that you put in your head, the less room there is for those of your own. It’s extremely hard to have original thoughts, or to consider your own unique life, when you’re constantly thinking about other people’s thoughts or other people’s lives, fictional or otherwise. Granted, I do read a massive amount, and I often feel that my own thoughts are little more than a synthesis of others (and hey, that’s often how the world works) but when I give myself some quiet time for thought and reflection, it’s impressive how often I’m able to come up with ideas and considerations that aren’t simply a rehash of someone else’s, even if they are influenced by other people’s ideas.

      Thank you for bringing that up. And indeed, quiet time is critical for good writing. It’s critical for lots of things, honestly. Every now and again, I’ll find myself watching a stretch of normal, live television, complete with commercials, and it’s incredible how busy and LOUD it is. I don’t know how others can withstand for hours at a time, or how I used to do the same. It’s amazing how bizarre and offensive you realize it is once you’ve been away from it for awhile and are able to normalize.

      Lastly, I know of no comments only page that you can get to on this blog; when I’m writing my replies, it’s always in a comment box on the dedicated post page, which means that if I scroll up from the box, past any other comments, I’ll get back into the post. Is it not the same for you?

  3. Hi Joel,

    Really glad you are back with another blog as I enjoyed your writing on your old one. Like your thought about “time debt” which I think often occurs sort of voluntarily. After all one doesn’t have to spend hours checking email and surfing on the internet. I also have friends who keep themselves constantly busy at various volunteer jobs. I have some mixed feelings there as I sometimes think they do this so they don’t have to spend time just with themselves. What do you think?

    Margaret

    • Hi Margaret,

      Thank you. And yes, I think the time debt is often taken on a voluntary basis. I know that doing exactly that is actually something I’ve struggled with myself throughout my life. I’ve long thought that quiet time with one’s own thoughts and reflections is important and critical; I also think that it’s something we don’t particularly learn in society today. It actually is a challenge not to distract oneself when you have a wide variety of distractions available to you, so yes–staring or poking at a screen is very commonly the way we distract ourselves from quiet time alone with our thoughts. Of course, there are a variety of other ways, as well, though that’s probably the dominate one these days.

      And, of course, we then don’t give our own lives the consideration they both deserve and need. It strikes me as a critical and insidious problem with no easy solutions. Ironically enough, the best way to combat it seems to be giving the behavior careful consideration—exactly what the behavior blocks one from doing!

  4. This is excellent. Thanks.
    We are a family of three (husband, me, daughter) and we have one car. I stay home and homeschool. We have no internet, no cable, no microwave, one tv with a DVD player for discs from the library. People think we are crazy. I feel we could do with so much LESS!
    Anyway, I just discovered your blog from a comment on ArchDruid. I’ve been reading JMG for years. Glad to find this now. Thanks!

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