Great Flagstaff Live interview about my book, “Pedaling Home: One Woman’s Race Across the Arizona Trail“. Thank you Gabriel Granillo for covering my book and my experience!
As I embark on a more simple and less technological way of life, I have been thinking about a tangle of tangentially related concepts: ‘distraction’, ‘habit’, ‘nonconformity’ and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While I will not be able to tie them all together here and now, I hope to thread some ideas together. After all, I am after better patterns.
Contrary to what I have written, I do find some psychology interesting. If we leave the rungs of Maslow’s pyramid suitably vague and allow for some fluidity between the levels (so as to account for situational and cultural differences), it is hard to disagree! By incorporating self-transcendence into self-actualization, Maslow addressed some fair criticisms; in particular, that his story about human development is too narrowly focused on the evolution of the individual self, cutoff from her communities.
Variously developed and interpreted, Maslow’s basic idea is this: once we achieve shelter, clothing, sleep and nutrients; safety (including financial security, a measure of health and freedom from harm); social belonging and, finally, esteem or respect, then and only then can we finally achieve “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” – the very marrow of life at the top of the pyramid. (There are obvious counterexamples, like the self-transcendence Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Many cases of extreme deprivation provide counterexamples; so, perhaps, both basic fulfillment and extreme deprivation prompt self-transcendence?)
What is so interesting about this pyramid of needs (ordered from more fundamental to more refined) is how few people ever achieve the more foundational needs in their lifetime. Even in “developed” countries like the US, we bounce around in the two bottom levels, surviving instead of living.
I wonder why more of us are not focused on meeting our basic needs — those fundamental needs that are so essential to our well-being, both individually and as a society. Are we afraid of our own company, so much so that we pursue distraction? As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town” (139).
I suppose I am a nonconformist; however, I am not a nonconformist just to be a nonconformist! I would gladly conform, if I were surrounded by flourishing people. And yet, it is so rare that I meet an authentically flourishing human being. (When is the last time you met one?)
My well constructed financial plan is now becoming unconscious financial habit; I spend very little, and I do not think about it. I do not view it is as deprivation. Rather, I am happy that I consume less and buy items used, saving them from a landfill. For me, it is a solid source of self-respect, not to mention respect for the Earth, including her nonhuman and human inhabitants.
It is unlikely that I will continue to blog about financial matters, as the entire point of (relative) financial independence is to forget about money and the business of consumption – and to ultimately free myself from a consumer or transactional mindset. Because only then can we focus on better things. 🙂
‘Till next time,
Approximately two years ago my employer informed me that my tenure-track contract would not be renewed. Needless to say, I was shocked. I cried. A lot. I suspected foul play (though I will never know for sure; was it me or was it them?). I was genuinely heartbroken, as the small college felt like a second family to me. Per the advice of my colleagues, I talked to an employment attorney (who said he would gladly take my case pro bono). However, ultimately I decided, “their loss”. And I walked away. Because it really was their loss.
All the while, I ruminated on what I had learned about higher education. Through the appeals process, I learned more about institutional “governance” (or rather, lack thereof) than I ever would have learned had I won tenure. As a young junior faculty member, I got to see what happens “behind closed doors”, so to speak. (I have no interest in rehashing it; at this point, that knowledge will go to my grave.) I was afforded the opportunity to explore the nature of my former institutional home, eyes wide open. At the same time, I investigated the interior of myself, and I owned my own mistakes. I am still owning my mistakes, which are many.
At the time I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card or two that I needed to pay off. I did not have the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. (The average American dies $60,000+ in debt!) Though I needed the money, I was definitely not eager to apply for and accept another tenure-track job in philosophy, since I still remain skeptical that other institutions are any different or that the philosophy profession is female-friendly.
I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism. After all, this is 2018. I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and had that belief confirmed, time and time again), but then the reality of this weird cultural moment slapped me in the face. I signed my severance agreement the day after the 2016 election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret that decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life.
In any case, I never really had the plan of achieving financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a 33% profit (after four short years of owning a house that was ridiculously too big for me) and used the funds to pay off all debts. (Like the majority of Americans, I did not grow up rich. I have had to work for everything, including my education.) Instead of prioritizing academic publications (which make me little or no money), I self-published my own book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, ridding myself of almost every monthly bill. My profits went toward a small condo, which I purchased for cash. Between savings, my 401k and my book royalties, I have arranged my finances so that I only need to work 2.5 minimum wage shifts a week to live securely and comfortably. I am pretty much retired, at age 33. Yes, my job loss was a very good thing, though it did not seem like it at the time. Lemonade out of lemons!
So, the next salaried job I take (if any!) will be on my terms. From hereon out, I contribute to society in ways that I define. 🙂 Because, fundamentally, financial freedom is not about money. It is about having control over your time and your energy, such that you do not have to pursue an institutional agenda you fundamentally disagree with. (Another influential book I highly recommend: Your Money or Your Life.)
I still have a lot of hope in our institutions; but I also believe they will not change until we demand it — and that requires being no longer bound to them through financial (or medical!) necessity. Why wait until you are 65 to achieve financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter? (This is crazy; and yet, we Americans have accepted it, thanks to successful advertising.)
Is achieving financial freedom easy? Of course not (especially given our consumer culture)! But it is worth more than a giant house or a nice car or all the cool vacations in the world. Because you own your own time. 😉 It is a beautiful thing.
In recent years “minimalism” has been on the rise, especially among millennials. The philosophy is not a new one. For example, influenced by Socrates, the ancient Greek Cynics practiced extreme minimalism, rejecting private property, money, status, power and the myriad social conventions predicated on these. Like modern minimalists, Cynics lived in regular society, in full public view. Like their forefather Socrates, they went without many possessions, but not without people. Despite its name, “Cynicism” was a friendly and social philosophy. The word “Cynic” actually derives from the Greek word for “dog-like” (κυνικός), which highlights the cynics’ dog-like way of life. In any case, from the very beginning of civilization people have been challenging the very values upon which civilization as we know it was built.
MINIMALISM AND MORALITY [It takes two to create inequality!]
Unfortunately, minimalism has come under fire for being a “privilege”; only the well-off have the “privilege” of choosing simplicity and simple living. To some extent, this is true. However, social and environmental justice are not achievable unless those with the means to live lavishly choose to live modestly and simply instead — until this becomes a social norm. The fact remains that we live in a country that constitutes less than 5 percent of earth’s human population and yet consumes 1/4-1/3 of earth’s resources!
But I did not intend to write a post about all the compelling moral reasons for practicing minimalism. I actually want to write about the wonderful practical reasons for practicing minimalism.
WHAT IS MINIMALISM? THE BASICS. [Less is More]
Minimalism is a lot of things. In general, it requires “decluttering” your life in a multitude of ways. So, for example, minimalist bloggers write about letting go of inauthentic or exhausting friendships, in addition to excess material possessions and big houses. They also strategize ways to remove “mental clutter” — by, for example, imbibing less media, meditating and leaving their crazy careers. Minimalists reduce demands on their time, cultivating the ability to not overcommit themselves. They are under-scheduled, not over-scheduled. They avoid the ‘busy trap’. They also tend to eschew debt in all its forms, since debt causes people to take on more than they need and to commit to more than they want.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN BENEFITS OF MINIMALISM? [Being present for one’s own life]
Basically, minimalists want to be present for their own lives. They tend to value reflection, creativity and meaningful connections and projects above all else — all of which require free time, rather than conventional status and stuff. Anything that does not directly contribute to these ends gets “minimized”, sometimes ruthlessly. (For example, many minimalists do without a vehicle, more than one outfit, a smart phone or even Internet at home!) However, the payoff is huge. The payoff is inner peacefulness, joy, real (rather than “fake”) friends and “true freedom” — i.e., the freedom to spend one’s time actively pursuing one’s own agenda rather than playing one’s part in the “American Dream”.
HOW I PRACTICE/PLAN TO PRACTICE MINIMALISM
- All of my worldly belongings fit in or on my vehicle.
- I do not own a smart phone or a TV. (I watch films on my laptop.)
- I read the news once or twice a week (long-form journalism, not soundbites).
- I check out books from my public library. I donate many of the books I purchase.
- I have one social media account at a time, and I sometimes deactivate it.
- I live in a very small house, and I am moving into a studio condo/housing co-op in the city (in close proximity to everywhere I need to go).
- I currently work part-time but save/invest more than I earn. (Check out this blog.)
- I cook vegan fare, using basic spices and oils. I buy local produce or grow my own.
- I plan to eventually use walking, bicycles and buses as my primary means of transportation.
- I try to minimize drama; I have time and energy for healthy relationships.
- I meditate and journal regularly.
- I cut my own hair and make my own lotions. I buy used, especially clothing, cookware, appliances and furniture.
- I have no credit cards and no debt, including a mortgage, car loan or student loan. (I do keep one credit card for emergencies.)
- For long trips I have used Greyhound buses (and plan to do this more!).
How do you practice minimalism? Comment here or write me at email@example.com!
Yesterday afternoon Teddy and I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We camped along FSR 688, which is dotted with large dispersed campsites. The next morning we hiked along the South Rim (pictured above).
2/2/2018 — Groundhog Day (Journal entry)
I pitch our tiny tent alongside a giant Ponderosa, but Teddy stakes out a spot farther down the dirt double-track. I drag the tent to Teddy, who squats under another Ponderosa, HIS Ponderosa. We take a brisk walk at dusk, enjoying the last little bit of light and warmth.
In the evening Teddy burrows into my doubled sleeping bags, keeping me warm as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost gathers on the tent, and the nearly-full moon lights up the sky. Every now and then I emerge from the sleeping bags for a sip of freezing IPA, a Tucson delicacy.
Lately I have been reading two new books a week. I cannot stop reading and thinking! Tonight I am reading Yuval Harari’s, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Coyotes howl in the distance, causing Teddy to stiffen beside me. I learn that Homo Sapiens likely exterminated a related species, the Neanderthals, after mating with a few of these caring homos (a situation canines seem to have avoided!). I pause on Harari’s reconstructed picture of a Neanderthal girl:
She looks so peaceful.
I do not romanticize our hunter-gatherer past, as some men do. Rather, the story of how we emerged as the triumphant species tells me something about what we might be in the future. Also, I am curious about what I, Sarah Jansen, might be. How do I live in a way that is more true to the story of an evolving, improving humanity?
To some extent, most of my adult life has been unusual: eating vegan, having few possessions, limiting my exposure to the mass media, studying and conversing deeply, eschewing dogma (both religious and scientific), and seeking out solitude and adventure in nature. It is the way of life that feels most natural to me. Meat, tons of stuff, an overstimulating and busy environment, casual relationships, superficial ideas and conversation, dogma of any kind, unvarying routine, constant company — these are my worst nightmares!
Tonight I am trying to imagine a somewhat different form of life — something that works for me but is still recognizably human, perhaps even recognizably American. I do not know what my life will look like, but I do know that time is the only valid currency in life.
“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a human desire?”
— Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness
Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.
Me & my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and took her to a commune!)
Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit my baby niece. (What do I do when I camp alone? I drink beer and read books. It’s awesome.)
Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China
I also spent time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on all the ideas and arguments they studied fall semester. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two just talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). I plan to try this next fall, when I teach Intro to Philosophy again.
It is odd teaching something like philosophy at a university, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that, quite frankly, has no place in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more human and more free. The entire grading system militates against this project, which is one of many reasons why academic humanities is increasingly irrelevant. I feel like I spend half of my teaching energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. It is exasperating sometimes. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own standards. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.
It has been a long journey getting to this place myself, but, at 33, I can honestly say that I mostly measure my success by my own standards. I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I rely more and more on observing people, institutions and my own self. I make my own judgment, thank you very much! And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think, which makes me a pretty poor professor sometimes. I do not like “professing”. I do not like playing the part of the expert or the authority. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it. Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in academia, but I soldier on. I’m not actually sure I will continue teaching after next academic year. I may “retire” in 2019, leaving a budding academic career behind me. Or I may teach part-time. It depends on whether I believe I am doing something truly valuable.
Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, a good car (which takes me to amazing places), excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.
At first the sense of unbounded freedom made me miserable. I tried to find ways to get rid of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationship, etc. But all this scrambling just made me miserable. Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing. And since I have always wanted to write books, I am going to write another book. And then maybe another and another. Why? Because I can and because I want to. 🙂 And if nobody reads it, I will not be any poorer for that!