Constrain me

My friend and I just spent two nights at an off-grid cabin: no electricity, no fridge, no running water or flush toilet. When I tell people about this bare-bones expedition, they have one of two reactions: enthusiasm or complete horror.

I started in the first camp and happily remained there, found our retreat defined by a soothing, encompassing ease despite peeing in a bucket in a cold outhouse. We coddled the cast-iron woodstove as you would an infant, checking on it often, coaxing it and feeding it, anticipating its needs. We went for leisurely walks around the farm and woods around the cabin, counted cats in the barn and squinted to read the names on cows’ ear tags. We followed the river to see where it would go, observed interesting trees, crouched to take in the red and orange leaves sealed under the ice on the pond. We drank warm beverages and wine, we dined simple meals, some we’d prepared ahead of time and heated up on the propane stove. We lounged and read books by the light of oil lanterns that Laura Ingalls would have recognized. We talked easily, and often, the way old friends can. With few chores and no real responsibilities beyond the ravenous stove, it was almost a return to childhood. Do what you feel like. Be where you are.

It sounds idyllic, and it was, mostly (with only a couple small debacles around that woodstove baby), and there are lots of reasons for that, but one is that it highlights what is essential: shelter and warmth, good food, good friends, time in nature. When we strip away so many distractions we can see the importance of what remains.

I feel this way of my year of buying no new clothes: it has tuned out the crowded marketplace crying, “New! better! best!,” helped me step off the hedonic treadmill and focus on all that I have already and on other things that matter more. I had coffee with a journalist who was in the middle of being vegan for six months, and though it wasn’t easy (“You get the point that you see a lentil and you could just die,” she said), she saw it as a way to recalibrate, to pay attention to what she actually needed, to see what she could live without.

All the inspirational gurus,all the marketers, they try to convince us that our potential for happiness and success is stratospheric, if we just work harder, spend more, are more positive, more connected, and also more disconnected, if we keep up, slow down, know it all, be it all.

While at the cabin I was finishing Heather Havrilesky’s sharp, insightful collection of essays about modern life, What If This Were Enough?, and in it she zeroes in on so much of what I’d been thinking about lately.

Many of us learn to construct a clear and precise vision of what we want, but we’re never taught how to enjoy what we actually have. There will always be more victories to strive for, more strangers to charm, more images to collect and pin to our vision boards. It’s hard to want what we have; it’s far easier to want everything in the world. So this is how we live today: by stuffing ourselves to the gills, yet somehow it makes us more anxious, more confused, and more hungry. We are hurtling forward—frantic, dissatisfied, and perpetually lost.

We think of limitations as obstacles, as something to be smashed through like prison walls. But constraints also clarify, they help you focus and prioritize, they allow you to savour success and contentment. Every day, of course has constraints, every lifetime. Maybe one day we will upload our conscious selves to the Cloud, have an infinite life in an infinite space with infinite rooms. But after we’ve dissolved all these limits and boundaries, we may find ourselves adrift in an endless sea, eyes forever locked on an unreachable horizon.

This is not to say that constraints are the final word, that no one should try to improve their circumstances, improve themselves, improve the world. We need not all move to one-room off-grid cabins or become vegans. But I do think we need to get friendly with our constraints, which is to say get more friendly with ourselves and our lives. But instead of looking beyond them to what we aren’t, let’s look to what we are. Our better, happier self might not be found by forever chasing it, remaining a person in perpetual motion; like hunters, we can’t forget the importance of standing still and paying attention.

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