Here’s a question I’ve gotten in various forms: “How were you able to ditch everything in your life, everything you valued, everything you worked for, everything that you represented and that represented you, and embark on a quest for happiness, understanding, enlightenment, and peace?”
The most common form of this question, however, has been “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Followed by, “Congratulations. You’re now a bum.”
The answer is simpler than either of the three questions. Great change only comes out of great crisis. It’s that easy. We cannot change without crisis of the spirit, of the mind, of the heart, of the body, or of the pocketbook, and frankly, to really walk away from life you need a crisis so profound that it encompasses all five.
No person willingly subjects themselves to such changes for purposes of change–those that do are suffering from pathology. The crisis must be external in that circumstances alter so profoundly that you must either double-triple-quadruple down on the status quo, or you must change.
Society exists to buffer us from those crises, and give us a framework within which we can rebuild the life that we lost. Society shuns the person who accepts crisis as a challenge to society, society has no place for the person who, broken into bits, refuses to rebuild what was and insists on continuing the disintegration that the crisis began until, with a clean piece of ground unencumbered by the shoulds, oughts, and musts of society, seeks to construct a life that is new.
Such people end up as the founders of religions, as martyrs, as nameless hoboes, as corpses under a freeway overpass. They never return to, say, accounting or the financial sector.
My crisis came after years of lying and deception about what I really wanted in life, which, in a word, was simply freedom.
From my earliest years I rebelled at authority, at rules, at orders, at things designed to reign in that most fundamental of all freedoms, the freedom to move where I wanted, when I wanted, in the fashion that pleased me most. I tried to run away from home, I got into fights at school, I disobeyed every teacher I ever had, I got suspended, expelled, spanked, beaten, threatened, had things taken away, had sick punishments visited upon me, and was always reminded that I would piss where I was told and nowhere else.
Nor do I speak of pissing idly. It had never occurred to me that being told where to piss was yet another restriction on my freedom until, at age 24, I was standing in the yard of the father-in-law of Jean Reigner, outside Angers. Jean spoke no English and didn’t need to.
“This,” he said, “is the land of my father-in-law. He is a good man and had only one daughter. When I married her, he said to me, ‘Jean, I have plenty of land. Why don’t you and Colette build a house on some of it?’ But of course I refused.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It is very simple. If I build the house, it is still his land. And I did not want that.”
“Because. My piece of land is very small. But you know what?”
“If I am on my own land, and I want to piss here, I piss here. If I want to piss there, I piss there. I piss where I want.”
I’ve never forgotten that clearly expressed wisdom, as it sums up my entire life’s quest, simply to be able to piss where I want. And unlike Jean, I want to piss in far more places than a tiny homestead in the Loire Valley.
Despite knowing from age two that I wanted to be free, in one shape or another I have voluntarily ceded that freedom. The details don’t matter, but every person can relate to jobs and relationships that were inadequate. And almost every person can relate to accepting those inadequacies as the price you pay for fitting into what society calls a good spouse, a good parent, a good employee, a good person.
What people cannot accept is that they can still be good, and more importantly, live a good life, without also accepting the inadequacies. People can be happy. People can be satisfied. People can be free.
More radically, we were designed in nature to be all those things. We were engineered for happiness, satisfaction, and freedom; it took society and its blessings to convince us that we can stumble along until death with a life full of compromises, of unhappy moments/days/months/years, and that the only real freedom we deserve is the freedom that someone else tells us we can have.
There were so many signposts telling me that I was on the wrong path, but I was fortunate because my father, for all his shortcomings, steered me into philosophy as a freshman in college. The first course I ever took was an upper division class on Ancient Greek philosophy taught by Ed Allaire.
Tall, gaunt, chain-smoking Camel no-filters in class, on our first day he went straight into Plato’s “Euthypro.” Do we revere the gods because they are good, or are the gods good because we revere them?
It’s safe to say I never graduated from that first day. In various ways, I’ve asked that question and delighted in the non-answers for almost forty years. That gift of dad’s, the ability to question the nature of the belief itself and the origin of the belief, is what has allowed me to walk out of the rubble of my former life and, rather than return to it on bended knee, follow the string laid down by the unseen ball of twine.
Each night that I sleep under the sky and look at the stars it is driven home thus: “You are a complete fucking moron because you don’t even know the phases of the moon.”
Or, in wonderment: “You are so dumb that after a year of stargazing you still can’t locate Arcturus.”
More profoundly still: “You are part of the cosmos not apart from it. Your life is only an infinitesimally small particle existing for the smallest fraction of a nanosecond amidst the utter randomness of nature. Whether you die or live, whether you succeed or fail, whether you discover meaning or only empty space, in five hundred billion years only a relatively small number of people will be able to recall your birthday, your favorite color, or that KOM you fucking owned on Strava that until that little bitch stole it from you.”
None of which is to accept nihilism, any more than accepting that the sun’s core is 27 million degrees, and therefore I’m not wearing a coat when it snows.
Rather, great crisis led to great questioning, places where there are no firm moorings and where the answers shift, exactly the way my answers always used to in math class, where variety was exactly not the spice of life.
Paying your debts means recognizing the gift that my dead father gave me, and also the gift of my dead brother, which was the love of bicycling. As life fell apart, the only thing that seemed to provide stability was the most unstable thing of all, a device that falls over the minute you quit pedaling it. But faith is a funny thing and indeed, the more I’ve ridden, the more layers I’ve sloughed off so that within a year or two or five I will be down to the skin and bones of me. Each thing that falls by the wayside proves how unnecessary it ever was, both by the clang it makes as it rattles off into the ditch, and by the Subtraction Theory of Necessities: Take the thing away and see if you can still live well without it.
As the things reduce in number, which were actually never that great to begin with, I’m left with some simplicities, the bare bones of shelter, clothing, food, bike, cell phone, and the occasional wi-fi connection. That’s actually quite a lot until you consider that the shelter is a small tent or nothing at all, the clothing is one set of wool everything, the food is something prepared and eaten in minutes, and the cell phone is primarily a camera and typewriter.
The reduction in things has been accompanied by, of course, a reduction in human relationships because the only way we can sustain myriad relationships is with myriad things. Study after study confirms the depressing effects of social media, and history confirms that people do best in small numbers and worst in large ones.
Without the “things” to hold those relationships together, they simply go away, and with them go the stresses, the uncertainties, the insecurities, the fears, the judgments, and the emotions–good and bad–attendant with each relationship. The thing we know innately, that it’s better to have one true friend than a thousand acquaintances, is borne out by my stripped down life. Some tiny number of people show me love and compassion for who and what I am, some other number … don’t.
So although Ditching Life for Dummies isn’t easy, it is simple, and in truth, I hope it never happens to you. Some pain is so great that the outcome isn’t rebirth, but death.
But if it does happen, and if you do have a chance to look at life with a fresh set of eyes, I’d (mostly) encourage you to take a long, solo bike ride somewhere far away. You’ll be surprised at the person you end up riding with.
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