Roughing It

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca encourages us to avoid living a life that is motivated by material possessions. He encourages us to recognize times when we desire more and more comforts and pleasures in our lives and to remember that we will never be satisfied with our things, and will always desire more.

 

An unfortunate reality for us humans is that the things we want seem to give us less satisfaction over time. We become accustomed to the heated seats in our new car, the large TV becomes normal, and the new espresso machine gets old and we stop thinking about how happy we are to have freshly  brewed coffee each morning. The question becomes, how can we be content with what we have and avoid landing in a place where we are never happy and constantly need to buy more stuff as if attempting to fill a hole in our lives?

 

Seneca has some advice, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”” What Seneca advises is that we spend time going without any comforts. That we picture what total failure would look like in our lives, and live in that way for a short while to truly experience the loss of our comfort. In today’s world this may look like locking up our GPS watch and smartphone, wearing only our most junky tennis shoes for a few days, sleeping on the floor in the living room (as if we didn’t have a bed) with our oldest pillow and thinnest blanket, and eating just canned beans and rice for a few days.

 

Living with nothing for a short period of time may help us appreciate the things we take for granted in our lives. It also can help us see that all the comforts we rely on, that we were so excited to get at first and that we forget about over time, are not things that are essential to our survival. By remembering not to rely too heavily on these comforts, by seeing that we could live without them, and by roughing it for a little while, we can develop better relationships with our stuff.

Rhythms and Routines

I started a new job a few months back and my commute time has doubled. I was already driving a good distance across Reno, NV (I know it is not LA, San Francisco, or Washington DC but it was still not fun), and now I am driving about twice as far to our State Capitol in Carson City to work for the Legislature. My drive time is now about an hour both ways, for a total of two hours of commuting daily. In addition, where I work has less amenities in the office, which means I need to bring more, prep more, and plan more with what I eat and what I need for the day. What this new job has created for me, with new limitations on my time, is a daily routine where my entire day feels like it is in a time crunch and where I need to be on point at every second if I want to fit in everything and be prepared to have a successful day at work.

 

I am leaning very heavily into my daily routines now. I wrote in the past about Colin Wright’s thoughts on routines in his book Come Back Frayed and Michael Bungay Stanier’s views on habits in his book The Coaching Habit. Today I have another quote from Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Right now I am relying on a particular rhythm to help me be successful and live life the way I want to live. But, the rhythm I am building right now does not have to be permanent. I do not need to live this way forever and I can choose whether I want to maintain this rhythm and let it dictate my life, or whether I want things to change. About our rhythms and routines, Wright includes the following, “Many of us fall into rhythms relatively early in life, and then decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that the rhythm we’ve come to know is the totality of life. This is it. This is how things are. The evidence of me experiencing life in this fashion seems to be supported by the hypothesis that this is how life is meant to be; the only way it can be. But this isn’t the case.”

 

I know I can change my daily routine and I’m sure future jobs will necessitate a change in my routine, but a bigger question for me to think about is whether I want to change the general rhythm of my life or whether I want to continue with the general orientation of current life. I try to exercise daily. I try to do a lot of reading, especially during my lunch break, and I try to write each morning. Many of my evenings end up being spent with my wife watching tv, especially if we eat, but none of these pieces of my routine have to be a constant part of my life forever. For me, and for anyone else, little experiments in life are always possible. I could decide that I want to try something different from running or spin biking and try a boxing gym for workouts. I could decide that I don’t want to pursue reading any further and try doing things that are more social and engaging. And at an even bigger level, I could decide that I don’t need to live in a house and could find a small apartment, spend less money on my living arrangement, and take a more flexible job closer to home with different hours to open up different parts of the day.

 

What is important to remember, and what Wright is saying in his quote, is that life is flexible and full of possibilities. We don’t have to settle into any one particular way of living and we can try on different life styles. Just because we were raised a certain way, just because we happen to find ourselves relying on (or simply falling into without noticing) specific routines does not mean that our lives have to be set in one particular way from now until we die. We can have great success and achieve a lot of goals within our routines, but by shaking them off and experimenting, we might find new avenues of life that resonate with us on a more profound and meaningful level, or we might just find a renewed passion for something in life that we did not know could give us meaning and value.

Growth from Friction

I’m very good at traveling, but I am terrible at planning and setting up trips. I wish I was better at scheduling, coordinating, and getting out on trips, but I am not very good at thinking long ahead and planning out a vacation with another person. On my own, I can travel easily and I am comfortable almost anywhere with almost anything, but traveling with others is never quite so easy.

 

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright talks about travel and how traveling pushes and influences us. Wright has spent a lot of time traveling and moving about the world at the suggestion of his fans and readers. He has been in many different places where he did not know the customs, traditions, or cuisines, and has had to learn things quickly in unfamiliar places in order to get by. When it comes to travel he writes, “Travel Frays. not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over again.”

 

When we are at home in the routine of everyday life, things is stable and clear. We organize our day, our home, and our actions to be predictable, comfortable, and desirable. We become what we do and what our life is organized around. Our identity is clearly tied to the things we do and the places we go. When we travel, however, curve balls are thrown at us and we are placing our trust, our time, and our physical location in the hands of strangers. Where we are, what we are doing, and how we interact with the world is influenced by forces beyond our control, and this, according to Wright, is what frays us.

 

I am good at traveling on my own because when I have no agenda, no demands, no expectations on myself, and no deep desires for a certain outcome, I can adjust to these fraying experiences and let go of my routine and plans. When I travel with other people however, I must be dependable and consistent through the changes. Traveling on my own I am content to simply walk and experience a new place. To try a new restaurant, to see something different, and to just be in an unfamiliar place. But traveling with others pushes me to do these same things and have these same experiences while also accommodating people who may not be as open and flexible as myself. This is the greater challenge for me, pushing me to give in some areas while remaining firm and foresighted in others. Independent travel reminds me of the variety of the world and human experience, travel with others pushes me to be more thoughtful about who I move through the world with. Ultimately, traveling with others is a changing experience because it drives me to be more mindful of time, my position in the world, and how my actions and the actions of those around me impact the person I travel with. It is a great shifting puzzle in which I must not only think about my own reaction to the world, but also how the person next to me will react to the world. This great challenge is fraying and sometimes a bit painful, but ultimately builds our relationships with other people and with an often unpredictable world.