Parisians and Demigods (part 2)

Once, when I was a very new believer, I heard Don Vanderslice of Mosaic Church share a very interesting message. He contended that our present ethos, our American spirit of the age, is essentially: to become like god. And, not in a good way.

His point was that the privileges and luxuries that we seek are designed to bring us up to a level of privilege that seems near to godlike power. For example: cars and planes allow us to travel to any city or any continent we please, within a few hours or a couple of days, and with no physical exertion. The internet, and Google, allow us to apprehend any piece of information, about anything at all, at any time. Cell technology allows us to do this from any place as well, and essentially to be in two places at once. Social networks take this a step further by letting us be everywhere, all the time.

We take supplements to avoid aging, medicine to avoid sickness; we construct home theaters to entertain ourselves with any drama, epic, or any kind of stimulus whenever we want. We furnish our homes with the latest toys, artwork, tools, and furniture, so that our five senses are extensively stimulated and pleased within our own domains. Etc., etc., etc.

I found this reasoning pretty compelling. It seems our culture has taught us that if you have more of these things, you’ll have a better life. So, to support such a dream, we work hard, look for open career doors, and fight our way into salaries that can hold up such a godlike existence.

But, critically: in pursuit of these privileges, I think we rarely consider the true cost of them. Let’s do a case study.

A car, we’ll say, gives us the godlike power of traveling and transporting things very fast, with zero effort. The cost of that privilege, as everyone knows, is that you have to spend money on gas, maintenance, insurance, and financing of the vehicle itself.

But the real list of costs is longer. Days or weeks are required to select a car; energy is needed to negotiate a price with a dealer, which necessitates further research; then you’ve gotta tweak your budget to accommodate car expenses; you’ll need to spend time comparison-shopping for insurance, and more time learning about maintenance; and more time to research mechanics. If time equals money, that’s a lot of money lost.

And finally of course, there is a portion of your overall income that never actually arrives in your hand, because it gets converted directly into payments for the expenses mentioned above. Don’t forget, money also equals time. And I’ve done my own calculations, and discovered that 6.5 man-hours out of every week go to the upkeep of my car. 6.5 hours! That’s nearly a day of work every week, which works out to about 42 days a year, which would be 8.5 work weeks. Holy crap.**

After taking a look like this, it isn’t a stretch to conclude that bikes are faster than cars. If we also remember that biking saves time otherwise spent exercising in a gym, then the gap between the two grows even more.

 

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Mind you, the purpose of this post is not to advocate for bikes over cars, but instead something more useful. I contend that we can’t truly handle being godlike.

It’s true, we can live lives that have all these privileges. We can manage our money carefully, be frugal and shrewd, and responsible with our errands, and we can juggle a life filled with godlike conveniences. It is possible, yes. But the cost on our lives is more than we notice. And we suffer for it, more than we know.

Our rushing around, our insomnia, our depression, credit card debt, and myriad endless errands — all these are the costs of our godlike lifestyles. We are all spread too thin because we have given away pieces of our lives to demanding, unsympathetic masters. The things we own have owned us back.

 

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Okay, so what can the “Parisians” teach us? What did Jen learn over there in Paris, that makes her now able to function at a different cadence?

It’s really simple. The Parisians are poorer people, and consequently can’t afford these godlike powers. And so, they don’t pay for them — not with their money, their time, or their energy. They walk or take the bus. They wait. They listen. They exert effort for the things that they find important.

We Americans are generally not forced into that posture. We have to choose it. And the only time we’ll ever choose to have less godlike power will be when we realize what the true costs are. Our budget spreadsheets may suggest that we can afford these things, but the ledgers of our lives indicate otherwise. In all truth, the story is more rightly that, regardless of your income, you cannot afford to live with all the godlike privileges that our culture wants to sell you.

 

**For a fun exercise, take a large privilege in your life, tally up your recurrent expenses that support it, and then convert those payments into man-hours that you work. Look at a day, then a week, month, and year. You may be surprised. Feel free to post your results in the comments field of this blog.

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5 Comments

  1. In 2008 I spent a week on an island in Nicargra (Isla de Ometepe). There were no cars. Just buses, a few trucks for carrying banana’s to the ferry (their main export) and a couple of motorbikes. The only internet was a single internet cafe about a mile from the hostile I was staying in.

    It was the first time I’d been out of the US, and I was shocked by the poverty I saw. But what shocked me the most was how happy these people were. Much like the Parisians you described, adults were content just being and kids were free to be happy and liberated. I watched kids swing from ropes on trees onto the ferries that were leaving the island, waiting until they were 100 yards away from land before jumping off and swimming back as their friends laughed and dared each other to go farther than the last friend. The adults were at peace just doing the bare minimum to get by. I walked the streets in a land that didn’t speak my language, riding buses, wading in natural springs, eating bananas straight off the trees, and generally just being at peace. It was an amazing week.

    A few months later, I had a similar experience. I was sent to Bangalore India for work. I was there for a month. During the weeks, I was in the hustle and bustle dirty streets of a newly grown Bangalore, and it was no fun at all. People were poor, but unlike Nicaragua, they were unhappy. Streets were littered with car traffic. I witnessed two wrecks and both times the drivers got out and physically fought. But, during the weekends I escaped into the countryside and witnessed the exact same phenomena I saw in Nicaragua. People were poor but happy. Children played and adults sat still. No one was staring at their iPhones, no one was rushing to be somewhere. People just sat still and seemed content.

    These days looking back, I sometimes wonder if I just mis-evaluated the situation with a “grass is greener” perspective. But all I know is this, it was during those two trips that I felt a peace that I hadn’t felt since I was a small kid (before my parents started pushing me to study) and it’s a peace I haven’t felt since. Since then, I’ve been making decisions with the sole goal of re-iventing that feeling and making it a permanent part of my life. It’s tough though, I haven’t found the perfect recipe to accomplish it in the US, but I think you are right on track that the first step is to give up the God-like “luxuries” that are, in my view, holding us back from inner-peace. So far, it’s been working for me.

    Reply

    1. Good to hear back from you, BNL! You paint an idyllic picture, and one that my heart remembers. I’ve also been to Bangalore, and the atmosphere there, as you said, is NOT one of those places where the relaxation response is abundant.

      I think I may reach out to you soon to see if I can’t learn from some of your re-inventing experiments.

      Reply

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