Archive for December 14th, 2008

Best Two Falls Out of Three: Wrestling with Temptation, Discipline and Self-Denial

Sharon December 14th, 2008

When we were first planning on moving to a farm in this area, we came very close to buying a gorgeous little farm in an Amish neighborhood a bit west of where we did buy.  The house was Amish built and fairly new, with four small bedrooms and large open public spaces (it looked pretty much like every other Amish home I’ve been in, if that’s a useful image for anyone), with a medium sized pole barn and 10 acres, fenced for livestock.  It was lovely.  It was under 25K (yep, you saw that right!).  I wanted to buy it - and my husband said “No way.”

But, I argued, we can add electricity and indoor plumbing gradually.  I appealed to his innate cheapness - we’d have no debt, we’d have money to put into the house straight off.  We’d adapt.  My husband’s reaction was  not just no, but “No!”  And we ended up spending considerably more money for the house we have now (which is wonderful and lovely too).

Now cheapness was only part of the reason I wanted this house so very much.  There was a deeper reason.  You see, self-discipline is not my middle name.  My reaction to “would you like a cookie” is almost always “sure,” with predictable effects.  I can justify all sorts of things with the reasoning that “this time is an exception.”  And, of course, I start noticing after a while how often the exceptions add up.    And my husband is not too different from me - he particularly hates raining on anyone else’s parade, so he’ll happily say “well, of course, honey, if you’re tired….” 

This lack of natural capacity for self-denial means that I work best if there are firm, hard rules, no exceptions (outside of the usual extraordinary circumstances) and mechanisms for enforcement.  Ideally those mechanisms are external, because the problem with making the rules for yourself is that you know the person who made them ;-)

What I really wanted the non-electric home for was simply the experience of not being able to flick on a light, not being able to turn up the heat, not being able to do things the easy way.  I knew we probably would add electricity at some point, ideally renewable,  but I felt that we might be able to add only those things that really mattered to us, very gradually, and to carefully pick and choose what uses of energy were essential to us.  I felt (and still feel) that would be the best way for me personally to go about reducing my impact.

You see, for a long time I didn’t have a lot of conveniences. I was a poor graduate student in a city.  I had no car, I had no washing machine, I had very little money. So, for example, I did laundry quite infrequently - I washed out underwear in the sink, wore my clothes a fair while, and when I could work up energy and money, I piled all my laundry in a sack, slung the heavy load on my back and hauled it a long quarter mile to the laundromat, and then hauled it back, often cussing all the way.

But the funny thing is that if you’d asked me whether my laundry situation was a major burden, I’d have laughed.  99% of the time I never thought much about what a pain it was to do the laundry - and the other !%, well, it was annoying, it was a pain, but it didn’t really matter that much, even when it was cold, even when the laundry was heavy, even when I didn’t like it.  After all, every life has bits we don’t enjoy, right?  Sometimes those bits really are a drag, but more often, they really aren’t that big a deal.  Now for some people, this would have been a big deal - someone who couldn’t haul their laundry or pull a cart, for example.  And yet, I think about all the elderly ladies in New York City who do just this - perhaps for some it is a huge burden, but don’t they also suggest that even in old age we might be able to find ways to do with less? 

Well, the first time I lived with an actual washer-dryer in my own house and didn’t save up coins, I was amazed by how wonderful it was.  And… how often everything suddenly seemed to need washing.  Now I knew I hadn’t always washed my clothes that often, and as far as I could remember, people didn’t sidle away because I smelled bad.  I knew my towels had usually been washed monthly.  But somehow, no matter how I tried, I never could (and still can’t) quite get my laundry down to the level of washing that I did (proportionally - with kids things are a bit different, but even a rough approximation per person) before I had a machine.  I just can’t - and I’ve been trying for a long time now.

The same thing is true of life without a car.  It had its hassles and hardships.  And I used to walk long distances quite routinely, sometimes in terrible weather.  I know that I’m perfectly capable of covering a few miles on foot without any major hardship - but even allowing some level of adaptation for children, I find it very hard not to use the car on occasions when it would be somewhat inconvenient not to.  That is, I find it hard to live in the mindset that allows me to make enough time to put the kids in the strollers and walk the four miles to the library.  More often, I find myself rushing about and saying “oh, gosh, we’re late, we have to take the car.”

I do it sometimes - we keep our driving quite low, using just over 80% less gas than the American average.  And by American standards, I wash probably less than most people.  But I also know that in the absence of the option of driving, I would make time to get there on foot.  In the absence of the washer, I would find less laundry. 

Yesterday, I broke the Sabbath by working.  I had a good reason, of course - I have a book deadline in less than two weeks, and I’m getting a little panicky that the manuscript might not be ready in time.  It is a perfectly decent reason for doing something I shouldn’t - except that I know that if I truly treated the Sabbath as inviolable, I’d have found a way to make sure that the book was further along.  I know that somewhere in the back of my head, I had already allowed myself “well, if things get really dire, I could always break the Sabbath.”  And that’s not exactly one of my proudest moments. 

I know there are people out there who can simply say “well, we park the car and use our bikes every time.”  For me, it is more like, “we park the car and can use our bikes about half the time it would be possible to.”  I’m always impressed by people who manage to have the “out” sitting right there and say no to it - sometimes I do, and sometimes, I don’t.

I do have self-discipline about some things - I won’t turn the heat rather than put on a layer, I generally won’t fly, even when people offer me a lot of money to come talk at their events, I won’t tell someone I think they are right just to keep the peace.  But it is a constant struggle with temptation.  And I find myself attracted, yet again, to absolute solutions - longing for a life where the easy ways out don’t even exist for me.

I thought about that recently as my friend Shasha writes about her move to an Amish farm which may or may not end up having to have electricity.  I admit, I envy her - most of all, I envy her the structural realities of a life without easy ways out.  I am curious - would I find them so burdensome that I’d seek out easier solutions?  Or would I find myself content with these lower energy, simpler choices?  I don’t know - and I can’t know without experimentation - but the experiments require major changes.

Every life, no matter how plain, requires self-discipline too, and I’d probably suffer some failures of that along the way.  Early this year, my washing machine, after an extended period of shredding my laundry every time I washed, conked out, and we were forced to consider whether to invest in a new, frontloading washing machine or a James Handwasher.  The frontloader won, and I don’t have a lot of regrets - maybe after everyone is 100% night dry, but with two using diapers at least part of the time and the occasional bedwetting, I don’t really want to handwash.  But I still wonder whether my estimation of the benefits of the washer was correct.  We have let other appliances break and not be replaced - and often haven’t really minded the lack.  For now I’m still a washing machine person, but the nagging sense that I can’t really fully evaluate my want/need for it in its presence has never gone away.

I grew up in the outer suburbs of Boston, in a small city that is now a regular commuting venue, but that in the 1980s was far out enough to be cheap.  My father never owned a car during most of his adult life, and despite the fact that we lived on the outskirts of everything, I grew up being able to get pretty much anywhere without one.  It might involve two buses and a commuter train, along with my bike, but I could and did get to outer suburbs all the time from my outer suburb.  It meant checking schedules, coordinating trips with other people, and often, standing around waiting for trains - but since I’d spent my whole childhood waiting for one bus or train or another (my father did not allow his residency in a cheap area to deny him or his family any of the pleasures of the city - we went everywhere, constantly), I don’t think I even noticed.  If I think of those days, it is longingly, of life without the hassles of car ownership.  I know that standing, waiting for a late train in February wasn’t fun - but that kind of “not fun” didn’t really matter much in the overall scheme of things.  I know that doing without things won’t always be fun - but how do I know how much that displeasure will actually count?

When we moved to the country we “had to” have a vehicle.  We’ve struggled to find good ways to balance the mobility we really need with the mobility we simply want - and to find ways to reduce temptation while upping our self-discipline.  At one pont, we were able to barter with neighbors to share a car - and knowing that we only had the vehicle on specific days made us more careful with our use.  For now, we only have one small car - the six of us cram (safely) into a Ford Taurus.  We look like clowns getting out of our tiny car - but it means we use less gas, and have to seriously consider whether it is worth being crammed to make longer trips.  It encourages us to use public transportation for visiting family and to skip unnecessary trips. 

And sometimes I wonder if we really ”have to” have a vehicle - could we combine a combination of two electric assist rickshaw bikes, a pre-made barter arrangement with our friend with a truck (for when the goats or hay must be hauled) and a shared commute for Eric?  I’m tempted sometimes to try it - and a little cautious about giving up my conveniences too.  I know someday we may have no choice but to give up the car - shouldn’t I be prepared for that?  Perhaps that will be our next project.

Culturally, we tend not to have a lot of respect for people who lack self-discipline, or a lot of concern about the idea of temptation.  We have decided, for example, that rules about avoiding sexual temptation, for example are outdated - we should, instead, rely primarily on our own self-discipline.  Thus, older ideas of modesty (which of course have their problems, since they often were primarily emphasized for women) and restraint have fallen away - to be replaced primarily with self restraint.  The only problem is, we don’t have much.

The same thing is true with technologies - we are told that there’s no point in objecting to a technology, or suggesting we shouldn’t go down certain technical avenues - no one has to have a cell phone or a car or a whatever.  The problem is that a narrative that says so presumes that we do have a cultural basis for self-denial, that we’ve been taught how to say no, how to think critically about our technologies, or, for that matter, about sex.  It assumes that we’ve been taught to value self restraint. 

There are real merits to self-denial and real pleasures in it, and not just austere ones, or the pleasures of being self-righteous.  That is, I genuinely think my life without a car would be better, more enjoyable, more fun than my life with one.  The economic, personal, time and social costs of the car - and certainly the costs of a car-based society are simply too high.  But not only do most of us not realize that cars actually take more time and money than they return, but most of us have never in our lives been asked to think about what self-discipline might do for us, whether it has any merits, other than the ability to sniff down your nose at someone not as austere.  In fact, the accusation of self-righteousness often completely undermines any discussion of self-limitation, simply because we cannot imagine that there are other merits involved.

There is certainly plenty of truth in the statement that I need more personal self-discipline, or that I can’t blame the fact that I eat too many cookies on the culture as a whole.  And I don’t.  But in a culture that dismisses the idea that temptation is a problem, that we might begin addressing our deepest social problems by restricting our capacity to give way to our worst selves, it is very hard to even begin to find a way at those problems.

I don’t know how many people struggle with this question of self-discipline, but I’d suspect a lot.  Figuring out solutions for myself and my family involve a range of strategies.  First, some creative deprivation - I think often the best way to use the minimum is not to have any choice.    The one bright side of our current economic crisis is that many of us may get some chance to explore creative deprivation - and we saw that last time we had a Depression, the habits of thrift and care lasted far longer than the Depression - our grandparents kept living the way they had to, in many cases, simply because they couldn’t imagine anything else - everything else seems too extravagant.

The second shift is the need for self-discipline - sometimes it isn’t good to take the cookie.  I need to work on the ability to “say no” and to find the immutable wall in myself that says “these rules aren’t just mine” - sometimes I get there by realizing the rules are God’s, sometimes by realizing that my actions affect other people, sometimes by simply promising that there will still be cookies later, and that I’ll be happier this way.  I’m working on the idea that self-denial has its own pleasures and satisfactions, that quieting that nagging sense that I’ve cheated - not just cheated on the rules, but cheated myself.  This week, I cheated myself out of the restoration that the Sabbath would bring me by not arranging my life for it.  I think sometimes I may have cheated myself out of knowing what I can actually do, by making my own life a little too easy.

I don’t think it is necessary to have a religious faith to exercise self-denial, but I don’t think it hurts - the idea that there are limits that are not of your own personal setting, and the creation of a community to explore them in,  is useful to me, at least.  And I’m reminded of a story that Scott Savage tells in _The Plain Reader_ he writes:

A story that appeared a number of years ago in the Amish publication _Family Life_ told of a busload of tourisst who visited an Amish farmer.  The group consisted of people from many religious denominations.  One of them said, “We already know all about Jesus Christ, but what does it mean to be Amish?”  The Amish fellow thought for a minute and then asked for a show of hands for how many in the tour group had televisions.  Every hand went up.  Then he asked how many thought that maybe having a television contributed to a lot of social and spiritual problems in society.  Again, every hand went up.  In light of this, he asked, how many would be willing to give up having television?  This time, no hands went up.  He went on to explain that this was the essence of being Amish: a willingness to do without something if that thing is not good for them spiritually.

The Amish do so with both the force of community and the force of faith behind them.  My own suspicions that I’d be better off without a car exist, not in complete isolation, but outside a unified cultural sense that cars are harmful - even though we know they are.   We are not all going to share Amish religious convictions - but I wonder if there is a way to translate some of their culture of self-limitation into a secular reality?

I know that the Amish relationship to the technologies they choose to use and those they choose not is probably the right one for most of us - don’t mistake me - I’m not saying we should all be Amish.  But the idea that we should look at our possessions, our technologies, our work and everything that structures our lives and ask ourselves whether it is good for us, is, I think, right.

But that’s not enough - the best and most ethical of us will find it hard to do this in isolation.  By ourselves, on our country road, it is painfully hard to imagine asking others to help us live without a car - or simply use ours less -  even if we were to trade or barter with them.  The burden of inconveniencing others in a project that they do not share or value seems high, perhaps too high.  In a community where many people wanted or needed to use their cars less, or even get rid of them, we could feel ourselves full participants, share strategies for reducing temptation, give back as we get.  It is a conundrum and a nut we have yet to crack.

I don’t know all the answers - I do know that the problem of temptation in our society needs some exploration and analysis.  We need to find ways to begin our discussions not from the point that all of us ought to live as perfect paragons of self-discipline, but that we might, at the same time we improve our practices, and explore the pleasures and merits of self-denial, but also wrestle with the enormously vexed question of managing temptation.