OBG = oldies but goodies. This post from almost exactly 10 years ago is like a “report from the front” of my own thinking related to the question: How can Americans fall in love with limits the way we’ve fallen in love with freedom?” Our romance with freedom as entitlement, expansion, breaking (up, in, out), and, when you come right down to it, selfishness writ so large it’s sociopathy, is literally killing the web of life and the cohesion of societies. I set myself the task to find a language for limits equal to our language for freedom. I started the inquiry at the turn of the century, so this post is a half way mark. It’s apt that it popped up in a search this morning as I think about the social emotional spiritual existential aspects of climate change – what is/ will collapse inside our minds, hearts and wills as the systems we depend on weaken and give way. I mention my cancer diagnosis, The Big C as it’s called. This moment’s collective Big C is Climate Chaos – isn’t it?
Falling in love with limits the way we’ve fallen in love with freedom; a personal reflection on cancer, the 9-step program and the state of the world
Seven years almost to the day after Joe died of cancer, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer myself and “given” less than a 50 percent chance of being alive now to write these words. This certainly gave me pause – a long pause in fact – to face myself, my mortality and my life. The basic wisdom in Your Money or Your Life – not about money but about life – turned out to be a profound road map for the journey through the thicket of cancer. But I also saw a great irony – that my unstoppable drive to put this road map in the hands of millions nearly cost me my life. As I will tell later, I had been living for decades with the knowledge that our consumption had taken us collectively beyond the limits of what the planet could support. I desperately wanted to head this “desperado” off at the pass. Because I was trying to run fast enough to stop a runaway train, I ended up in personal overdrive – every bit as insatiable in my mission as the consumer frenzy we debunked in Your Money or Your Life. I didn’t know how much was enough. I slept too little, worked too hard, traveled too much and spread myself too thin. For love, not money, but still beyond my personal limits. Ultimately the search for health, aided by the FI road map, became a sustained meditation on the value of limits.
When I reflected on the long the road that led to that moment when the oncologist rather ineptly broke the news, I went back 15 years to 1989 when I attended the Globescope Pacific Assembly in Los Angeles. It was the first major North American hearing about “sustainable development” a recently coined term that had guided the United Nations in a worldwide search for answers to the question of how we can have economic prosperity, environmental integrity and social justice all at the same time – now and in the future.
I scribbled incessantly in my notebook in that dim hotel ballroom room as I listened for days to the terrible conclusions of each distinguished expert who came to the podium. All their research, it seemed, pointed to the same underlying driver of inequity and environmental destruction: the rate and pattern of consumption, especially in the United States.
Eventually a small detail caught my attention. After each speaker delivered this message he’d shrug as if to say, “Well, we know we can do nothing about that. No one dares get between an American and his right to consume.” In other words, we’re sunk.
“But we can do something about that” I thought, sitting in the back of the ballroom. “I know we can, because people who follow the 9-step program do lower their consumption, gladly, often by 20 percent or more.” Then I had a truly audacious thought. “Could it be that our humble little 9-step program holds keys to saving the world?” It’s not often in a lifetime that one realizes that they might be onto something BIG. I felt like I’d been picked up by the scruff of the neck – legs and arms flailing – and relocated on a new path by some force greater than my little will. That’s when I became a missionary on the subject of the FI program – and started driving myself beyond my own limits – and into depletion and ultimately cancer – in service to the cause.
In this boldness of intention I was so American. Joe and I had used the freedoms of this country to realize our dream of transforming the way American consumers think about, spend and save money. We called our lives together “the great adventure” inspired by Helen Keller’s statement that “Life is either a great adventure or it’s nothing.” On the wall of the house where a group of us “great adventurers” lived and worked was taped our motto. “Life begins when you are in over your head.” And also George Bernard Shaw’s quote: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” We had no quotes on the wall saying, “Chill.” Or “Breathe.” Or “Take a break.”
Well, Joe passed that torch to me (and many others) when he passed away in 1997, and by 2004 it looked like I was, myself, at the end of my run.
The tumor was symptom-free and detected quite by chance. Even the diagnosis didn’t slow me down. It took the insults and assaults of treatment – surgery and chemo (which I stopped mid-course before it killed me) – to stop me nearly dead. The experience pried my fingers off the steering wheel of my busy life and gave me the gift of going within.
A week after my surgery I had a dream. I was in the desert, parched, with my tongue swelling in my mouth. Upon waking up four distinct sentences came to me like directives:
“I’m drinking dead water.”
“I must drink living water.”
“By water I will be healed.”
“I have to leave this house.”
The last sentence was the first one I heeded. A need to live by water grew from a still small voice to an inner command. I wanted to be where I could see the vast daily sweep of the tides. And I had to do it alone. And so it was that with no more than the dream’s directive I left the house a where I’d lived in community for 16 years, the house where I’d written Your Money or Your Life in a basement room that also served as a storeroom, the house where early one morning, still in our pajamas, we were stunned to learn, days after being on Oprah, that Your Money or Your Life hit the NY Times bestseller list. The house I’d returned to, again and again, bedraggled by publicity and speaking gigs, to tell an all-ears New Road Map team my sad, funny and triumphant stories, the house where Joe was diagnosed with cancer and four years later died. The dream said I had to leave that house. I had to unhook my destiny from the collective and go solo, and go within. So, after my first round of chemo, hair thinning and blisters spreading in my mouth, I moved into a one-room cabin above the beach on an island near Seattle. Settled, I pondered those first three directives.
I’m drinking dead water. What is “dead water”? Tap water? It’s clean, but maybe I’d die too if I had to travel down narrow pipes and through treatment plants. Dubious but willing I tried all friendly suggestions to raise that tap water from the grave – blessing it and adding special “liveliness” powders to it and running it through coils.
Then I realized how much of my time as a “missionary” was spent in the deadness of cramped airplanes and sanitized hotels and, truth be told, in the company of brilliant yet dispirited people, distraught over the decline of the living world. Even now I am nervous before every public talk; how much adrenaline had I pumped through my body to speak to anyone, anywhere about Your Money or Your Life? Dead water became a metaphor for that loneliness that comes moving amongst people who only know you as your work – now without Joe as a mighty companion who welcomed me home and helped me put it all into perspective. I was taking in life in big gulps, but without Joe I stopped digesting it fully. Colon cancer was the perfect mirror of this insatiability.
Finally, dead water became what we all accept because we’ve lost hope of changing it: impenetrable corporate and political systems that run our 9-5 till 65 making a dying lives and feed us dead food, air and water. We’re all drinking dead water.
I must drink living water. Living water? Tides, I thought, must be the living water I craved. Then I told a friend about the dream. “Living water,” he said, “is what Christ called himself when he spoke to the woman at the well.” Living water is spirit. Drinking living water became the metaphor for caring for my one now very sick body and my one very thirsty soul. My “missionary mind” recoiled from the idea. I’d intended to die in my boots. In the middle of a meeting. “Sleep? I’ll have plenty of time for that when I die” I’d often quipped. So at first I approached “self care” like one more cause – studying, planning, making a program – until I came to see that care wasn’t a thing, it was a feeling and an action. I needed to attend to myself lovingly – with that same unbroken thread of connection a mother always sustains for her infant. Self care isn’t just jogging, yoga and greens – just like turning away from overconsumption personally or collectively isn’t just budgeting or legal constraints. Like so many idealists and ideologues, I’d been willing to sacrifice the weaker inner voices to my strong convictions. I had to stop all that if I wanted to live.
And so I softened and sank into a reverie in those months of being stopped and staring across the water to Tahoma (Mount Rainier). What, I asked, is beneath the surface of the water of my life? After decades of moving mountains, what was the mountain which, like Tahoma, would not be moved?
By water I will be healed. I got it. Not what I drink. Not the hot mineral baths. This little cabin above the beach where twice a day the tides still cleansed all the toxics we dump into the waters that to us were simply the “away” in “throwing things away”. And, being a woman, water became a metaphor for the feminine. In the world of sustainability I had been one of the few women invited to plenary podiums at conferences. I had a man’s drive and ability to put aside my body and feelings to get the work done. As I relaxed my will I was given entry into the deep well of being a woman. From flying high I was thrust into a very feminine descent deep into the soul. The mission – and it comes to most women – was to revive the discarded and half dead parts of self that are collateral damage of the road to success in a man’s world.
This soul journey within revealed to me my own complicity with the paradigms Joe and I had been trying to change. My whole life I’d strained against everything that held me back. I was as attached to my own right to do life my way as any consumer on the planet. Anything that limited my will I saw as frustrating, boring and definitely to be breached. Like most Americans, I had swallowed a delusion that freedom means “no limits.” Indeed, I’d been nosing along fences between me and freedom my whole life, keen for openings. I was made for “away.” For getting away. For finding a way. For leading the way. As long as I had some wide-open spaces ahead of me, I could breathe. “Don’t fence me in” could have been my theme song.
I could have approached cancer the same “part the waters I’m coming through” way. In fact, upon diagnosis I wrote to my colleagues as though I had a wee touch of cancer but a few snips and I would be back on duty. Cancer, though, was blessedly a sphinx unmoved by my devices, mutely seeming to say, “Girl, you’ve gone beyond your limits. Stop.”
An old joke goes like this: Two ships in a fog are approaching one another. Each captain tells the other to yield. Neither one is giving in. Finally one said imperiously, “Sir, I am an Admiral. Shift your course.” To which the other replies, “Sir, I am a lighthouse. Shift your course.”
I was – and perhaps the whole western enterprise is – a ship, not a rock. We are headed for a crash, in that potentially terminal state called “overshoot”.
Just about the time I was tipping personally into overshoot, research was showing that we all were already there. Since 1985 we’d been spending more of the earth’s resources each year than could be regenerated. We are in debt ecologically and going bankrupt. Technically, overshoot occurs when a population exceeds the long-term capacity of its environment to provide food, habitat and water. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off.
Seeing overshoot on a graph was eye-popping for me. Two simple lines, the rising “what we collectively spend” line crossing in 1985 the steady “everything we have ever had and ever will have on earth” line (humanity’s wall chart), “Holy sh-t” I gasped, and got busy. We hoped that Your Money or Your Life might drive that expense line down a bit. We hoped that would happen by the turn of the millennium. Midway through that mission Joe died – but I, the energizer bunny, kept going. The century turned, the US savings rate actually went down instead of up, and I began to ask, even before cancer, what was in the way of a collective “Holy Sh-t” moment and a holy shift to sustainable levels of consumption. More and more I came to suspect the last thing I’d ever accuse of being in the way: freedom. Or our definition of freedom.
Often in my FI lectures someone in the audience would argue: “But this is a free country, I don’t have to change. You can’t make me.” Indeed, none of us has to change. What makes the FI program work is the freedom to choose to change because you’ve seen for yourself that there is a better way. Impose frugality and the whole transformational vigor of the program collapses into a finger-wagging temperance movement. I came to see that addressing overconsumption – and cancer – would require a falling in love with limits the way we’ve fallen in love with freedom. To see limits as allies, not enemies.
I wondered, “How and when did we make limits wrong and bad and freedom right and good?”
I turned to philosophy and learned that when liberal freedom was envisioned in the 18th Century European Enlightenment, it was against a backdrop of near-suffocating conservatism. Most people were embedded in social classes and roles and in religious and political systems that defined them and their prospects from birth to death. Asserting the importance of individual rights and freedoms was revolutionary at that time – and much needed. In my day, though, this innovation has been around long enough to reveal its long shadow. In the name of freedom we have increasingly cast ourselves adrift from any loyalty to the good of the whole.
Isn’t that cancer, too? Cancer cells have lost any sense of proportion. They have abandoned the good of the whole. They are, in fact, a very apt metaphor for our human presence on the earth. Limitlessness is the prime directive of the cancer cell, sucking life energy from the host unaware that by doing so it is assuring its own demise. For our whole western industrial paradigm the idea of falling in love with limits was as unthinkable as a cancer cell giving up the ghost willingly. Yet just as consciousness can grow faster than inflation, consciousness seemed the key to my healing body and soul – for me and for my people.
Limits liberate or How FI thinking helped me get well
Twenty years of FI thinking actually helped. In fact, it lit the way.
Deeper than all the tracking and charting of the program are the three core awakenings that revolutionize, not just improve, people’s financial lives.
The first awakening is: Money is my life energy – not some endless supply the bank and boss doles out, augmented by credit cards. Money equals the hours of my precious – and time limited – life.
The second awakening is: Enoughness. Stuff makes life better – but only to a point. Money buys fulfillment when spent on survival, basic comforts and a few luxuries, but beyond the point of “enough”, more isn’t better. More is clutter. It’s wasting the one thing I have for sure: the hours of my precious – and time limited – life.
The third awakening is: Align your spending with true happiness and deep values and you get the real gold of life. Is this expenditure of life energy fulfilling? Is it in alignment with my values? Wisdom and smarts both dictate that I spend my precious – and time limited – life on what matters most.
In following the FI program, you use the reality of limits to transform your earning, spending, saving and joie de vivre. Once you see that all life has limits you have the power to select what you really want – rather than devalue what you have because you long for what you will never get.
Limits liberate. They focus us. They let in what contributes to fulfillment and keep out the clutter. Limits empower. In fact, anyone who has created anything of value – from a marriage to a monument to a path to FI – knows that well.
Artists can’t create without some medium – canvas, paints, clay, stone. Designers of any sort can’t create without parameters. No traffic lights, for God’s sake, and we’re hopelessly snarled. Laws and frames and criteria are all liberating limits.
Deeper yet, nature, if we can attribute thought to it, knows that limits are necessary for everything little and big thing to live. The web of life is a web of boundaries between millions of species living in dynamic balance rather than one big amoeba of life. The acuity of the hawk determines the agility of the mouse. Farmers know their crops depend on respecting the requirements of soil, season and seed. The natural constraints of natural systems are liberating limits.
Spiritual teachers and devotees alike see limits defining a way to freedom – rather than being in the way of freedom. We constrain our attention to the breath to quiet the mind and reveal the soul. We constrain certain behavior (the Ten Commandments, the Eight-Fold Path) to gather back in, for the sacred, energy that’s dissipated on the secular. Spiritual practices – as well as fields of study – are called disciplines because people willingly nozzle down their attention to create the focused power needed to master their area of passionate interest. A spiritual path is a liberating limit.
Several authors quote without reference a story of a study of children’s play habits. In yards with fences, they play the whole yard. In those without fences, they play by the back door. Fences don’t just hold you in – they define the safe space to play. If you are not sure where the edge is, you’ll create a no-man’s-land in your mind and stay far away from it.
A long-time AA member in recovery told me, “When I know my limits I am free.” This brought to mind a young man’s response to my question, “When have you felt most free?” “When I got married,” he replied after some reflection. He and his girlfriend had lived together for years and thought the marriage was just to please their parents. “I was so surprised! Until that moment I had reserved some right to keep one eye on other options. With my marriage I closed the door to playing the field and in the moment my girlfriend became my wife she became everything I needed – everything I’d ever wanted but didn’t know was missing.” Marriage is a liberating limit.
How is it, then, that we have collectively bamboozled ourselves into believing in material limitlessness? That we could grow our businesses without reference to their field of play – the resources of the earth? That our possessions could grow without reference to the limits of our ability to pay, now or in the future? The same ideology that treated land like an input for industrial agriculture, depleting it of available nutrients and tilth had turned me away from caring for my own exquisite territory of body and soul.
I came to call the kind of freedom we practice as Americans “hyper-freedom.” Freedom on steroids. We took “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as permission for all of us to seek our own good in a system we thought should get in our face the very least possible.
Hyper-individualism: me first…second…and last
Individual rights became hyper-individualism, the right to a lonely and somewhat paranoid effort to best everyone and protect yourself. Of course that’s extreme, but competition without a strong set of laws to keep ruthlessness in check and justice in play can lead to this sense of entitlement on the part of the winners. It can become a war of the rich against the rest, and even a war of all against all. “Try to see it my way,” crooned the Beatles – and that could be the anthem of America. We want to do whatever we want, whenever we want if it’s not against the law – or, truth be told, we’re pretty sure we won’t get caught. We confuse freedom with having things our way. This isn’t just a captains of industry problem – it’s a captains of non-profits and of our own little life ships problem. Because we can reinvent ourselves we do – again and again – and lose our bearings, our sense of belonging. I was guilty of that. Subtly over time I went from that higher call in 1989 to the sort of deluded heights of thinking I was steering the future… from my computer terminal. Terminal. Get it.
Hyper-speed: going nowhere fast
Progress and efficiency and mechanization synergized into hyper-speed, from getting somewhere good to going nowhere fast. The term “24/7/365” was first coined to refer to what computers might do so that humans could relax. Now it refers to having the demands of the world howling at our doors like hungry wolves – morning, noon and night.
Efficiency used to be an industrial term as in “an efficient process.” Now we live in Charlie Chaplin-esque Modern Times, cogs in wheels that never stop turning.
We respond to “How are you?” with “Busy” as though it were the red badge of courage. To match speed with a world spinning out of control, activists like me just ran faster to put our fingers in every dike, to put out every fire, with less and less time to reflect on why we were winning battles but losing the war.
I’m sure this hyper-speed is what sent people in droves to Your Money or Your Life and the whole simplicity movement. They wanted to filter the onslaught of the consumer culture and have what Thoreau called “the examined life.” Now books on slowing down are speeding into print. Slow Food. Slow Travel. Slow Sex. Slowing down to the speed of wisdom is coming more into style. How ironic that I couldn’t enjoy it. In fact, a thought would flit through my mind during those years of promoting the FI program. “Hey, when do I get to be FI?” I had enough income for a simpler life. But the world was burning – and so I was I. Out.
Hyper-choice: selection obsession
Even choice – the hallmark of freedom – has morphed into hyper-choice: too many trivial choices and far too few meaningful ones. Endless choosing between competing products leads to confusion and insecurity. Is this the best cereal, the best movie, the best phone plan, the best car, the best TV show, the best house, the best school, the best place to live, the best I can do in the dating scene? We have a staggering, overwhelming number of choices – and they are paralyzing us.
The Associate Press reported in August of 2008 that:
“What America’s founding fathers called “the pursuit of happiness” … has birthed a landscape of options as dizzying as it is liberating… A mere generation after the three broadcast networks ruled, a Comcast digital cable package hands you up to 250 channels of programming. Today’s average supermarket sells more than 45,000 items, the average Wal-Mart Supercenter more than four times that …. By the end of last year, the Web had more than 108 million distinct pages to visit from the comfort of your lap.”
Every choice has a time cost as well, leaving us famished for time (see hyper-speed above). And we need time to think, dream, love, grieve, care, grow, tend – everything involved in making the human world more humane.
It seems impossible to the American mind that limiting individualism, speed and choice could liberate us, but I concluded in those months of cancer-induced stillness that this is precisely what we need. We are like hyper kids exhausting ourselves, unable to stop and longing for a grown-up to tell us to settle down, wash our hands, eat dinner and go to bed. We need to rest . In AA they have a saying, “HALT: Don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired.” Hyper-everything drove us into our consumer addiction. Sobriety is slowing down.
No wonder I got sick. This kind of freedom is toxic and far from what any decent religion or morality would promote. Yet it is so embedded in our psyche that we can’t seem to stop. Looked at squarely, hyper-freedom leads us into entitlement (asserting our rights but rejecting our responsibilities). It justifies domination (of the weak by the strong). It excuses selfishness (looking out for number one – cuz in this world who else has your back?).
The hyper-everything mind disputes this vigorously, of course. It says, “Isn’t testing limits – and going beyond them – how we evolve? Wouldn’t stopping… stop everything?”
Testing limits is almost the definition of the human enterprise. How far, high, deep, weird can we go and survive? How much can I really get or get away with? Which walls are arbitrary, and which are, for all intents and purposes, fixed? These questions emerge in toddlers along with crawling, pointing and starting to talk – and are with us, if we are lucky, till the day we die.
True. This freedom to “go forth” is crucial. It allows us to learn, to invent, to separate from what no longer works. But there is also a freedom in coming home, in belonging and bonding and simply being. Both take courage. Both liberate, but in different ways. We can’t always be switched on and blazing.
In those months by the tides I learned where the “off” switch was. I even stopped chemo after the second searing round of the six required. I stopped “healing” in their way, willing to lose my life naturally if need be.
Whole system thinking – how the FI road map helped me get well
There is a place between up and down and in and out which isn’t the middle but all about.
Between stop and go, as we were taught in kindergarten, is “look” and “listen.”
When I hit the cancer wall, and most particularly when chemo hit me, I had no choice – I had to stop. Then I got to look and listen to what the wall was silently, but eloquently, saying.
I started with sorting fact from reaction. I asked “What actually just happened – not in my mind but in reality?” “I have a tumor the size of a tennis ball in my colon,” I answered, not “Oh-my-god-why-me-I’m-going-to-die-cancer.”
I then checked myself out. My body feelings were easy to notice, but it took quiet and honesty to go deeper. I asked, “How do I feel – really feel – about this?” And I started to notice my feelings. I felt curious. Numb. Annoyed. Strangely exuberant. Furious at the system that’s poisoning the earth and then poisoning our bodies to “heal.” Calm. Fiercely defending my right to do it my way. Mobilized. Liberated. Hmm, liberated… what’s that about? How is it that I got told I have the BIG C. and didn’t wilt? My body stopped but something much free-er kept moving.
In addition to being my 9-step-program teacher, Joe Dominguez was also my mentor in motorcycle mechanicking. We loved riding our dirt-bikes and when one bike or the other would have a breakdown far from civilization, he’d get off and walk around the bike slowly as he pulled out his pipe and tobacco pouch. Then we’d hunker down together silently as he filled his pipe, lit it and had a smoke. Eventually, as his student, I got my own pipe so I could engage in the ritual. It seemed an essential part of the process. In time I learned that it wasn’t so much about the smoking as about the stopping. Most problems, he taught me, are far simpler than you think. A loose wire. A pebble caught in the chain. Maybe even being out of gas. Usually it’s not a part that’s failed, but its connection to the other parts. You can’t see unless you stop.
In a similar way I dusted myself off from the shock of hitting the cancer wall. I took stock of the physical and emotional realities. I looked for the simplest facts and drew on practical strategies I’d learned in the past. Then, and only then, after taking my metaphorical smoke, I took next step, which was looking for meaning and metaphor.
Meaning is different from explanation and it certainly isn’t blame (no shame no blame really helps with seeing clearly, no?) I asked, “What is the cancer trying to tell me?” What is the story of this tumor? How does it fit into the narrative of my life?” The cancer seemed sweet to me. Well meaning. It was trying to hold all the undigested feelings and experiences I had raced right past in my headstrong, headlong race to save the world. She (the tumor felt like a little girl) became beloved. I owned her as my creation – not as my fault but as my perfectly crafted, unconscious, possibly deadly solution to the complex equation of my life. In one bundle it took on the world’s toxicity and my own reaction to it.
I was not alone in this wide-open engagement with cancer. At a conference called Cancer as a Turning Point I met my Cancer Clan. The heads that bobbed in that auditorium wore hats, scarves, wigs, tattoos and nothing at all to cover their baldness. Some had patchy comb-overs (like me), some had lush curls of post chemo hair as it grows back. A hat cart in the hall loaned out millinery fit for a Sunday Baptist Service in the South. At the registration desk we were asked the site of our cancer as if it were just the state we lived in. I was of course assigned to the colon cancer table who met daily at lunch just to shoot the breeze about stuff like dealing with those fire-blisters that bubble up from lips to gullet – to planning our own funerals. Most people I met had quit doing things they didn’t like (for example, let go of a dead marriage or a deadening job) and started living their dreams (ride a motorcycle across country, try internet dating, go on a safari, paint). They were brimming with some sort of vitality, even with all the grief and fear that goes with facing mortality.
After this I made up a little story about the ill and the well. When the well become ill, they are bid adieu by their peers and sent onto the ship of the sick. “Ta-ta,” the well cry. “Do write.” But they go on about their daily lives in denial, hoping and praying that such a fate will never befall them. In the meantime, the ill trudge up the long gangplank in their drab hospital garb, playing their dreary part until they step on board. Then a totally different world opens up. There is a deck where the determinedly miserable can go to be cared for by serious people with stethoscopes draped around their necks. The rest, though, fan out onto the decks where there are support groups and meditation groups and massage and games and coaches, where we find the selves we abandoned on the road to being right, good and perfect.
After this stopping, looking and listening, the time came to make a choice. So many people with a cancer diagnosis rush to making a decision. My oncologist fluttered in my face a Xeroxed page from a very thick book of latest research on cancer prognosis and cures. Forty five percent chance of survival. Stage Three. I took the paper, held it up and said, “Piece of paper.” Then I pointed to myself, “Vicki.” “Paper. Vicki. Paper. Vicki” I took my time, and took back my authority. I asked, “What do I choose now – freely without fear?”
I called a friend for advice. He’d lived for years with neck cancer. He said, “I actually have thirteen active lymph nodes and I live with them as my lover. They keep me awake and aware. Not for everyone, but works for me.” By saying that he liberated me from the false choice presented to me by the oncologist. The common assumption is that chemo means survival and no chemo means succumbing to dying. Having stopped and looked and listened, it was clear that I could die even with chemo and survive even without it. And not dying was not an option – the only mystery was when.
This limit – this cancer – was simply a Rubik Cube, a complex puzzle with many possible moves and many possible outcomes. Freedom – or entrapment – was all in how I responded. Freedom thus came to mean the fearless and dispassionate looking at all consequences of all actions – without needing to do anything. Treatment isn’t a solution to dying. It’s just treatment. You face death and open to mystery and roll the dice and go for the ride. I faced death – and could live.
They say the sign of a mature mind is being able to embrace paradox. Maybe of a maturing species as well.
Among the many things Joe taught me was how to have a “mature mind.” He taught me the skill of looking at something from all angles and not just as a thing, but a thing in relationship to other things. He taught me to look at the underbelly as well as the glistening surface of whatever came my way. In his biker turned engineer turned Wall Street Technical Analyst turned curmudgeonly spiritual teacher, he showed me to think big picture and whole systems. Perhaps this training helped save my life. It certainly guided that inquiry I described above. I didn’t treat cancer as an isolated event, but as part of the flow of my life.
No surprise, then, that this “systems approach” is precisely what the FI program offers.
Understanding this was the gift of another meeting with the big wigs and egg heads of sustainability. At this one an international network of systems thinkers were examining the global “consumption system” and wanted to hear about our populist approach. Feeling a bit like High School Sophomore asked to give the commencement address – at Harvard – I explained the FI program. Not an expressive lot, they listened politely but without apparent enthusiasm and I was glad to reclaim my seat. At the end of the morning session, though, I was approached by the traffic “czar” for Vienna and the energy “czar” for Hungary. Surprisingly their eyes were warm and bright. “This is perfect systems thinking!” they each said, “You measure stocks, track flows, map the system and apply leverage to change the system to better achieve the goal.” Of course, I thought, Joe’s engineering mind wasn’t only applied to Technical Analysis, it was applied to liberating himself from the 9-5. And it’s what he taught me and a million or so others to do.
- § FI Step 1, creating your Balance Sheet, is the first step in mapping any system: take stock of what you have.
- § FI Step 2, tracking, is the second step in mapping any system: accurately measure all flows.
- § FI Step 3, Tabulating, is the third step in mapping any system: analyze your data.
- § FI Step 4, Evaluation, is the fourth step in mapping any system: do your results match your goals? If not, what do you want more of? Less of?
- § FI Step 5, Charting, is the next step in analyzing any system: are the changes you’ve made making matters better or worse over time.
It occurred to me that this FI program, so apparently simple, has in it the transformational wisdom to not only heal my cancer but to heal the cancer that the human presence has brought this earth. We don’t need a breakthrough – to further break what is already broken. We need to attend to the whole being. Our old freedom was breaking through at “leading edge”. Maybe the new freedom is one that connects at the “mending edge.”
FI Thinking and the Future
It then occurred to me that mending is happening everywhere. We are collectively already seeing the handwriting on the wall. We’ve measured human demand – that overshoot graph and the research into our Ecological Footprint. We’ve measured flows – in the climate systems, the financial systems, the energy systems, the sociological systems – and can see that the data points to a result none of us wants: overshoot and collapse. We’re now at that crucial Step 4: is what we have what we want? Is it making us happy? Is it getting us where we want to go? Do we want to shut down, go into denial and party on? Or do we want to get a grip and make different choices for different results. Hundreds of thousands of small groups have already made this shift. As Paul Hawken points out in Blessed Unrest, these little – and not so little – citizen groups have sprouted round the world like mushrooms that share one vast mycelium called caring for what’s ailing life on earth. We are the immune system. We are strong and we are everywhere. That’s freedom.
I’m not saying this shift is or will be easy. My cancer year was anything but easy. Change is hard before it’s fun. Before changing we will do anything to hang on to our old identity. Look around. Look within. This resistance is everywhere. Technology will save us. God will save us. We’ll save “people like us” – no more. The clever will survive, harnessing somehow the methane bubbling up from the thawing tundra. We’ll travel to outer space. To heaven. We’ll go underground. Live under a bubble that cleans our air and eat Franken food.
None of this will ultimately satisfy us – or save us. We are way beyond the peak of the fulfillment curve and the road to happiness isn’t about more – it’s about knowing how much is enough.
I came to a new question: Where will we find the will to do what we must to have the future we want? I believe it can only begin when we see the limits of the old paradigm of limitless material freedom. When we get that the party’s over, we’re drunk and sobriety will only come if we recognize that our addiction was the problem, not the solution, to our unhappy lives. Only then will we transform our relationship with limits, wake up to limits as allies, have a good laugh as our illusions of endless material progress evaporate and get on with building together a sustainable future for the generations that are here – and those that are coming.
Not only does FI thinking help us face our collective future, it provides a critical path forward. Living more frugally when in debt or overshoot is a sane and moral choice. The more of us who make this choice, the faster the collective transformation will go. We are at a crossroads. Disaster is not inevitable, but we need to change.
The rest of the cancer story
It’s now nearly five years since my diagnosis. In the interim, as I’ve said, I moved out of my house full of roommates, out of the city, off the island near Seattle where I’d wrestled with the Great Mount Tahoma across the water and into an over-garage apartment by myself in a village of 1000 on another island in Puget Sound. By all measures I am well. I have expanded in all directions from my passionate yet narrow activist path – balancing work with singing and dancing and friendships. Every morning I drink tea on my small balcony. To the east are the village, Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains. To the south and west are the fields where cows and sheep graze. I simply sit there – bundled in fleece in the winter, nearly naked in summer – feeling so fortunate. And rich. And free.
I do not regret my choices in the past. They not only seemed like a good idea at the time – they were. Perhaps we – you and I and many others – didn’t “make it” by the millennium, but it was more an error of time frame than of right action. The fact that I’m now revising Your Money or Your Life means I am still in the game. None of us can bow out of Life. We are part of a seamless web of cause and effect, an exquisite and ever-shifting pattern of constraints and openings, a weave of hard facts and fluid possibilities. Now, though, my task seems less like fixing and more like tending.
And I am still doing the FI Program, but now it’s with my island community. We’re collectively looking at how the triple crisis of global warming, the end of cheap oil and resource depletion will impact our little island paradise in the most Northwest corner of the Northwest of the United States. Many communities are now “re-localizing”, transitioning to a lower-footprint way of living. We are not doing it simply to protect ourselves, but rather to learn together what it will take to collectively turn the tide. Our monthly Potlucks with a Purpose bring the community together to learn, dream, share and mobilize. We are asset mapping – taking stock of what we have (Step One, remember?)– and trying to calculate flows of food, energy and money through our system (Step Two and Three) to see where the big opportunities for greater self-reliance might be (Step Four) over time (Step Five). I may be long dead before this transition to sustainability is complete. In the meantime I’m meeting my neighbors, having fun and using what I learned from my years on the road peddling sustainability to make life more sustainable right where I am.
And yes, it’s a really great adventure. Knowing the power of limits to liberate, knowing how to be with limits rather than barge through them, puts me back in “the great adventure” in a very different way. In short, I’m actually growing up before I grow old – and I think growing up is what we are all called to do in this time of consequences, this era of limits.
And this, my friends, may be our greatest adventure yet.
Teaser photo credit: By Arturo de Frias Marques – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0