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018 - On Deprivation - Moral Letters for Modern Times

You do not need what you think you need to be happy, because all you need is within you.
Modern apartment buildings on a harbor - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Another New Year’s Day, which means another spate of New Year’s resolutions. We promise ourselves that we will change in the new year. The tight waistband of our favorite jeans, the low step count on our Fitbit, the exercise equipment collecting dust in the corner, all that will be different now.

If you were here, Deuteros, I would happily listen to your recommendation. Should we be resolute in our retiring ways, or join the crowd in making resolutions? When everyone around us declares their good intentions, what misers are we to withhold our contribution to a more hopeful future? If all eyes around us turn towards the sky, only a few can keep their gaze on the ground. We are social animals, and to go against the herd is to go against our very humanity.

I know that you are up to the test I will put to you now. Do not be about the setting of annual resolutions, if these be expressed in the form of a goal you wish to achieve. Goals are but wishful thinking. Better orient yourself along the right path, and follow a system designed to move you in the direction of your choosing. You will arrive in places beyond what you could have imagined using mere goals. If you have a resolution, let it be this: you will learn to develop new habits, by taking a small thing and practicing it daily for two weeks. In that time, you will either adopt your new habit with relative ease or determine that it is not the one for you. No need for self-doubt. There are many paths leading to good outcomes, and you will simply choose another. Not the goal, mind you, but merely the path along which you will walk.

What you will learn from learning to adopt habits is that habits are everything. And how wonderful that, despite being so foundational, habits are disarmingly easy to form. Do you wish to be content with what you have? Practice going without and do so as often as you feel your resolve weakening. “But I need to travel in Business Class, or I will suffer most grievously on the flight.” Put yourself happily in the back of the plane, one row from the restrooms. What is eight hours when you have a good book to distract you? Should I have lost a moment’s peace worrying about being a few meters further back in the same plane? Am I not especially ridiculous when I imagine the anguish of those who sit one cabin ahead of mine when they contemplate the luxuries being lavished on the lucky few in First Class? And even those elite are secretly irked by the thought that flying private is so much more civilized.

Better yet, make your vacation one in which you do not set foot in an airport. Let your feet do the work and take a walk to a nearby scenic viewpoint. For nothing more than the trouble of walking out your door, you can attain peace of mind for no price. A walk in a forest salted with birds is better than any time spent in a concrete jungle, with only the outraged honks of taxis to serenade you.

The lesson you are reinforcing as a diligent student is that you do not need what you think you need to be happy, because all you need is within you. When you deprive yourself of things, particularly of comforts, you weaken their power over you. And such is the power of comforts that it leads many to lives of discomfort for fear of losing them. Not you. By going without, you learn not to fear privation. Besides learning the nature of which things are worth fearing and which are not, you learn not to take for granted that which you have. After you have been cold and thinly dressed, wet and without an umbrella, hungry and without food, then truly do you become a connoisseur of a warm, dry room and simple food.

When you have trained yourself to be happy with the most basic of nature’s offerings, then you have learned to live true to yourself. Happiness never lies in external things, and if it takes our depriving ourselves of things to relearn this lesson, then better for us to cast off all possessions than be weighed down by the slightest of them.

My finger hovers over the send button. “Not without another installment payment on your account,” you say. I call on the fortune of the Buddha to help pay this week’s debt:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

The wisdom here is apparent to everyone who has felt anger and been fortunate enough to have it fade away. Some spring repeatedly to anger at the slightest provocation. Anger is satisfying to give vent to because it drives out reason. You are no longer responsible for thought, you are spurred to violent action, be it words or deeds.

You do not wish to be someone who gives up their reason so readily, for this too is habit-forming. Self-possession means more than not needing things. Self-possession means keeping a tight grip on your reason, and not letting anyone or anything external hijack it from you. Though you may safely cast all else aside, your mind is the one possession you do not make better by depriving yourself of it.

Be well.

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