The Flip Side of Choices and Freedoms
Keep Hitting Publish
When I finally unwrapped my first blog last week (It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken), it brought an incredible sense of euphoric relief. It unraveled three-plus years of life-defining change that had been held back by fear.
Looking back, hitting publish should have been far easier on that one. It embodied so much of who I was, who I am, and who I want to be that it should have been a slam dunk. Of course, it’s never that painless; what means the most to us is always our biggest stressor. On the flip side, what means the most to us should also be the simplest things to say. Simple, just not easy.
While basking in my new-found, post-publish glory, I turned to the hundred other blog starters from the last three years with a sense of pride, purpose and optimism. It was frustrating though just how quickly my thoughts again turned to fear and over-analysis. Once again, living up to my own self-imposed (or see: ridiculous, stupid) standards would now have me second-guessing every single word.
Mercifully, in the haze of uncertainty for where I should be headed next, I received a kind, minimalistic reply to my post from Patrick Rhone (author of “Enough”, and “This Could Help”).
He said simply: “Good post. Keep writing. Keep hitting publish.”
Of course. Simple. As my mind has done for years, I was drastically over-complicating things. Write about what you know and what’s most real: you. And just hit publish, that’s enough. Keep writing. Keep hitting publish.
In the spirit of that profoundly simple advice, I just allowed my thoughts to organically fill the page.
A Blurred Kaleidoscope
The year 2016 had been a challenging one for me, personally. Following a testicular cancer diagnosis at age 39 I would face a period of what I suspect was some form of depression, one that would affect me more significantly than I realized, and of course consequently and unavoidably, affect my family. The lustre of a busy and “successful” career had dissipated, rapidly.
Life was shifting into a blurred kaleidoscope of responsibilities and coping mechanisms.
It was in late 2016 that my wife helped me see the realities of my internal struggles. She knew that I couldn't continue to allow quality of life be affected by unresolved indecisions about my future, or it would really affect all of us deeply.
This would lead to some of those conversations that are the most difficult in life to have, but are always, without question, the most beneficial, the most life-altering. They would ultimately provide exactly what I needed to move forward. I am pleased to say, that with some hard realizations and some serious effort I - we - turned a corner in life that would eventually transform everything.
The year 2017 began on an altogether different and optimistic tone. Communication and mutual understanding were stronger than ever, our focus on a positive family life was incredible, and our ever-strengthening marriage was amazing. It was, and still is, a great feeling.
Still, there remained some important self-reflection that hadn’t been completed just yet. My deepest career and life values, as compared to how I was actually living, remained in conflict. Predictably, I would spend much of that year in a state of confusion and transition, in many ways.
As you likely know by now, October of 2017 brought about the death of Gord Downie and my departure from a lifelong dream career, allowing me to move somewhat forward in reconciling my values to my life. The reality is though, the transition began much earlier, on some random, idle, cold February night. It was the night my wife suggested we watch “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things” on Netflix.
Full disclosure, prior to watching, or even being aware of this particular documentary, I can honestly say I’m not sure I’d even heard the word minimalism before; if I had, I would have likely dismissed it to another extremist, hippie movement. No offence, Joshua and Ryan.
It was Saturday night, sports on TV, and my very crafty wife strategically waited until 9:30pm, after the final horn, to make this viewing request. Given my utter domination of the screen until then, what choice did I really have.
At a running time of less than an hour and twenty, we were done before 11, but the impact of what we’d just experienced would have us mesmerized, and talking quite passionately until almost 2 am.
It wasn’t just that it opened our eyes to the world’s plight of consumerism, or the concept of small living, or even the imminent destruction of the earth’s habitat. It wasn’t just an epiphany about the nature of humankind or the growing trend towards living with different values, towards owning less. I mean, it was all those things, but it was something else that would affect me more acutely.
It was that it utterly exposed my deepest values; it brought clarity to things I didn’t even know I needed to understand about myself.
Quite suddenly, I was a deer in headlights.
I was instantly subjected to the truths of the paths I had chosen: that this life I was living was an amalgam of each and every micro-decision I’d made over the last 40-plus years. That not all of my decisions were made with a comprehension of my true values. This realization was a tough pill to swallow; it truly meant that I and I alone was responsible for everything in my life.
However, this revelation was not in itself enough. Yes, we would minimize our closets (kind of) and yes, we would set out on a more deliberate path of consumption. Birthdays and Christmases would slowly transition into a little more about “who” than “what”, and we would endure the single-eyebrow-raises of immediate or extended family intent on providing “material” items for us or for our children at each and every holiday.
But the transition would prove slow. The initial momentum of the minimalism revelation would remain subdued, at least for a while.
Clarity and Anguish
In my last article I suggested that “Writing is a Mirror”; that when we write down our thoughts, dreams, or values for consumption by ourselves or others, they inevitably provide us with a completely fresh and sometimes unfamiliar perspective.
Our very own words give entirely new life to our own ruminations.
If our own words can do that, it would follow that so can the work of others. As did the Minimalism documentary, for me.
Unfortunately, the newfound clarity with which I was seeing my own existence and values, courtesy of the Minimalists, did not in itself resolve anything at all. In fact, 2017 would then bring along months and months of self-anguish. My two-hour per day commute would give rise to an iPhone overflowing with voice-recordings; my verbal rants would be self-documented incessantly; the car radio would become utterly obsolete in favour of constant self-examination.
Blogs were started as fast as my mind could race from one life-changing contemplation to another. Career frustration mounted and every perceived injustice was magnified until it became impossible to ignore.
My internal monologue became about nothing other than an attempt to mold the world around me.
I was trying to manufacture work-life satisfaction in an environment incapable of sustaining it.
Despite the eye-opening revelations about myself in February and a much-healed, love-filled and inspiring family life at home, it’s hard to imagine that the Minimalists had actually created more anguish than clarity.
We Are Always Choosing
Chapter Five in Mark Manson’s Book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, is devoted entirely to the concept that you are always choosing. That while not everything may be our fault, everything is our responsibility.
That even choosing nothing is still choosing something.
And while Mark’s writing style may not be the ideal stocking stuffer for my 78-year old mom, his prose is littered with well-laid out and profoundly simple messages. Simple, just not easy.
The true difficulty of implementing such simple theories would keep me drifting throughout the better part of 2017. It wasn’t until a sincere understanding of the finite and unpredictable amount of time we have on this earth, and the corresponding contemplation of my own demise, would I finally, intentionally, write my own future.
The concept of having the freedom to choose our own future is a wonderful thing, but it’s not without peril. It’s a freedom that much of western society clings to preciously, as if it were the ultimate essence of their existence, but rarely examines what that actually means in a deep and genuine sense. Seldom do we take advantage of free will in a way that creates true freedom, but rather in ways that create an illusion of freedom. Or more simply, our choices are actually taking away our freedoms.
We choose mortgages that chain us to jobs that we hate; we buy material things that demand cleaning and storage; we keep relationships that require more time or energy than we have to give; we fill schedules with activities that restrict our freedom of time and place; we choose promises of pensions over youthful exuberance and living in the moment; we choose material luxuries over a sustainable environment; we choose things over experiences.
We choose all these things at the expense of something else.
We choose these things because they are what we are supposed to choose. They are what our family tells us is right, they are what businesses tell us is best (most profitable), they are what culture has groomed us to believe over decades. More often than not, it’s pure crap.
Make no mistake: there is freedom of choice in all our decisions. We need only be keenly aware of the flip side of that coin of choice. If it’s heads, it can’t also be tails. Choosing one path often means closing off another.
Journey or Destination
As the concept of minimalism and “living small” continues to remain at the forefront of my life, it brings me back to Mark’s concept that we are always choosing.
Minimalism at its roots is not suggesting that any particular way of living is right for everyone. Truthfully, when I first heard the word, I’m quite certain my mind read: minimalism = give away all your stuff. No, in fact minimalism is a principle designed to remove excess so that we can focus on what really matters. It’s not a manual of “how-to”, it’s a concept of “why-to”. (see; Everything that Remains, by JFM).
Whether you are a long-running minimalist like Joshua Fields-Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus, Joshua Becker, or Courtney Carver; or you are just beginning to seek out the concept of less; everything embodies the notion that we are always choosing. Minimalism in particular helps us understand that everything we choose to allow into our lives comes at the expense of something else; whether those are careers, material things, homes, activities, or even people.
Intentional and deliberate living isn’t a one-time decision. Rather, it’s a means to ensure that your most closely-held values guide each and every decision you make (if you aren’t sure that you’ve really defined your core values, try this first).
Life is an ongoing journey of intentional choice, without a finite destination.
We must decide, consciously, that our lives will embody only those values that we hold most true, not the values that others will certainly seek to impose upon us. Walking this path by yourself is extraordinarily difficult. Walking it with a wife, two children, extended family and a culture ingrained in habits perpetuated by consumption can be a straight up gong show.
We are only on the first leg of our long path towards less, towards intentionality and towards value-driven living. I can tell you though, that it’s been worth it so far. I’ve no doubt each step will bring more meaning. And you know what? I’ve had a really hard time finding stories of those who have regretted this path.
Be sure that you know what both sides of your coin really mean. Then choose.