As I walk down the roads in a small little village in Hungary, by the name of Szentendere, where life has probably not much changed in the last hundred years, I cannot help but feel that in large cities we have somewhat lost our way. I do not say this from a nostalgic point of view, I very much appreciate the benefits that modernity brought with it. What I do think though is that our priorities have changed for the worse.
We live a life where we’re constantly stressed, where we get ulcers, and heart attacks from having literally worked ourselves to death. There’s this persistent paranoia to succeed, to get more money, or else. It’s like having a phantasmal gunman pressing a gun against your temple for a whole lifetime. He’s told you time and time again, if you deviate from the plan, or screw up, he’ll shoot. The shot might not kill us, but we’ll be left wounded on the cold streets without shelter and soon enough nature will take its course. He couldn’t care less about how happy the other alternatives make you, or how unhappy you may currently be in your life of drudgery, he just wants you dead and gone if you make him unhappy.
This is a recipe for miserable people. Nothing is ever quite enough, and we continue running on the hedonic treadmill, never quite finding that peace of mind, which so desperately motivates us. Some have even, somewhat cheekily, called this adverse psychological affliction Affluenza. Unsurprisingly, antidepressant use massively decreases once you retire, and separate yourself from such bad influences.
The phantom gunman never sleeps, never rests and never forgets his mission. Despite what the victims of Stockholm Syndrome might tell you, I don’t think we’re meant for a life of servitude for our own good. As Bukowski well put it: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”
I think we live in an age with immense poverty, not one of affluence but one of the imagination. Things aren’t perfect, and they never will be. Utopia is a state of mind, not a place. If you’re capable of reading this and you are doing so, then you are one of the lucky ones. You have access to more resources than Louis XIV had, potentially by orders of magnitude. Hell, for that matter, you have access to more material wealth than over 94% of all humans that have ever existed. Truth is, you’re just bad at using and appreciating it.
I think Oscar Wilde had it right in saying that life ought to be about cultured leisure – the pursuit of interests for their own sake, where you no longer have to work to earn a living. Nevertheless, the second you try to turn your back to your job, you will smack head first into the gunman’s barrel. Fortunately, for us all, the gunman can be bribed away from us.
Ultimately, the phantom gunman is a pragmatist. He is only there to force you to pay your debts, he only looks at the number and asks you to pay it – he doesn’t care how large or small it is. I think it is time to stop getting things we do not need, with money we do not have, to continue the cycle of wage slavery. We have to find a balance between a humble life, and one of abundance, where we enjoy modernity. By reducing the debt, and living simply, the gunman will not be so intent on showing himself to collect. He’ll start distancing himself from you, but he’ll still cast a watchful eye over you, every so often, in case you change your ways.
There’s been several occasions this year where I’ve travelled the world for months on end, with little more than a large backpack. By my estimates, if you were to sum all the periods together, it would amount to half of the year. Furthermore, the backpack wasn’t overflowing with stuff, and at no point have I felt the need for anything that I left behind. Simplicity brings freedom, by removing your shackles and obligations. I funded my adventures by being somewhat of a thrift and being wise in how I spent my money. On occasion, I’ve told my local social circle about my escapades and they think me richer than Croesus – this isn’t really the case.
At the risk of breaking the fourth wall too much, I’ll confess that I dictated this article a couple of months ago in the Summer whilst I walked down that quaint little Hungarian town that I initially described. I never published it, as I was too lazy and too preoccupied with university stuff to transcribe it. As such, it lay dormant as a recording for several months on my phone. I’m revisiting it now at Fethiye in Turkey – where I’m remaining for a month by the seaside to work on school and my own writing projects, as I was in no mood to endure the British winter. Contrary to what I do in the UK, I’m eating out every day, as it’s comparatively cheap here. I wouldn’t be able to maintain this indefinitely, as prices rise in the Summer, but even so it’s well beyond the reality of most people by any measure.
I must stress that I’m a student in the UK, I’m not a rich man. Hell, if studies I’ve read are to be believed, I actually have substantially less money at my disposal per month than my peers. I’ve talked frankly with people in my social circle, and I seemed to have confirmed that assessment. Yet had I not seen the numbers, I would’ve thought that my piece of the pie was much larger than the average, as I never felt in want of anything. This isn’t a fancy university either, these are your run-of- the-mill students. Having said this, not only do I travel whenever I have free time, but I still consistently manage to increase my savings, whilst a substantial chunk of my peers are broke, or close to it.
The reason I manage to follow this path is because I knew what my priorities were. I think, above all else, we need simple things to be happy. We need health, we need good friends, we need love, and we need freedom to explore our passions – modern life can supply all of this to excess if we learn how to use it wisely.
Have you ever willingly simplified your life voluntarily? Did it work out?
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