Act: Inspiration

Good (enough) Choices in Bad Times

April 14, 2020

I have spent most of my adult life experimenting and teaching lifestyle choices that actually ripple up from personal change to social benefit. Yet in the face of this pandemic, these can-do approaches to life’s basics sound tinny. Our freedom of motion is constrained. How are we to “get out there and make stuff happen?” Many are in perilous financial shape, feeling at effect of a cracking economy. Maybe not the time to encourage saving money. Fear of access to basics has driven a run on toilet paper, guns, alcohol and now, amazingly, baby chicks. Committing to localizing your food sources may feel like too big a stretch.

At the same time, not everyone is responding the same. Some are adapting and enjoying it. The run on chicks represents a turn towards self provisioning. Grocers are out of flour as well as paper products – perhaps there’s a revival of baking. My housemate, a woman half my age with a Millennialish restaurant habit, has taken on to build her recipe repertoire and cook dinner nightly.  People are figuring out life online; septuagenarians are learning zoom.  Some people ping pong between helplessness and fury. We can’t control the virus. We can’t control other people’s disregard for social distancing and masks and keeping everyone safe. We can’t control how well or poorly our public officials are managing the crisis – to put in mildly WRT Trump. We can’t control our prospects for the future. This is the stuff of night terrors, virus or no.

Can we discern the difference between those who rise and those who fall? Those who rise to a challenge aren’t better, those who shrink in the face of trauma are not worse. Maybe the former are in denial and the latter more in tune with reality.

I happen to be one who does better in fluid situations and gets antsy when everything is placid and predictable. I know part of it is my masculine side that can compartmentalize and, like the Norwegians in Lake Wobegon, “get up and do what needs to be done.” I have to remind myself to be afraid of realistic threats. I read stories, talk with friends and listen to music to keep my heart soft. Is this just my personality? Is it learned?

By a slim accident of fate I found myself in Northern Wisconsin (Hodag country) from 1972 to 1974. We joked there were 2 seasons there: winter and 4th of July. Several friends and I were trying to extract a survival-hood out of 14 acres of logged out cranberry bog. Why is another story. Building a dome, draining a bog, planting a half acre garden, raising a pig, hunting – those and more are all stories for another time. In this one, a question that has nipped at me for the rest of my life arose.

The scene. We are living in – of course – a big green converted school bus, plus several clever makeshift structures. Our supplies are in an old army tent until the windstorm came through and collapsed it. The night after that, we played poker to clear our minds of dread and let some solution come in our dreams. We had a makeshift kitchen under a wide canvas tarp strung between the bus and two spindly trees deemed unsuitable to the loggers. Under it, in garbage pails, we had 25 pounds of brown rice, 25 pounds of pinto beans and 20 pounds of potatoes. On the 13 acres not a scant foot above the water table, we had all the cranberries we could eat. I actually didn’t need to tell you all that. The only details I needed were the year and a school bus.

The first summer we “drained the swamp” by hand digging ditches, we cleared an acre using a bow saw and, reluctantly, a neighbor’s back hoe to get out the stumps. We used Issue #2 of Mother Earth News, our neighbors and Farmers for Forty Centuries to guide us in picking seeds, planting and protecting our garden. We canned, pickled, dried, made sauces, butchered, canned some more.

I was in hog heaven. I finally felt competent. I learned what school and family never taught: how to actually support myself on this earth. I failed and learned and when the sun went down, dug into the meaning of this existence with the others with me in this challenge.

“Life is either a joy or a training,” one of my clan said. In other words, we were either present and enjoying ourselves – or we were learning.

One day in the second summer I asked myself, “Why do I not feel poor or deprived? I am living so far below the poverty line it can’t be counted.” My answer then, and still is, I am doing this by choice, not necessity. I am educated, intelligent, young and white. I can drop back in any time I choose, and in the interim, I can live on the cheap from savings. I am in Life School and love learning. And I am doing this with equally committed people on a similar spiritual as well as lifestyle quest. In other words, in some strange way, I am using my privilege to be poor.

Choice. Privilege. A thirst for learning. Savings. Community.

Fast forward 20 years and these teachings, stripped of the hippie trimmings, moved into the mainstream in Joe Dominguez’s and my book, Your Money or Your Life. We had systematized our choices into a 9-step program for financial independence. On the surface, it was about working hard, saving money, investing safely and liberating your time. Deeper, it was about questioning the whole consumerist capitalist platter of options. It introduced the real question of anyone’s life: is how I am spending my life energy buying me a life I love? How can I align my earning and spending with what I consider important? It offered people a completely legitimate way to use the dynamics of capitalism – growth, progress, entrepreneurship, freedom – to build a minimalist, satisfying life of enough. It was the poor-man’s “get rich (enough) and get out of the rat race” scheme.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

The book was a big hit, but mostly with the 60% of people in the middle class. People at the bottom were dealing daily with problems of getting enough to eat or having a place to sleep or getting any kind of job.  Was there a way to help people with so little inch their way out of debt?  We’d aimed Your Money or Your Life for everyone, but many people in limiting circumstances, be it race or means or education or emotional stability, had neither time nor money to get boots much less pull up by the straps.

The key is that we are individuals in a context. As individuals we do have choice over our attitude, beliefs and behavior, no matter what our circumstance. But we don’t control our context. Society matters. Society ranks people. Success, failure. Good, bad. Worthy, unworthy. Wealthy, bum. Dignity is wealth. If it isn’t proffered it can be claimed, but disgrace, poverty, having far less leaves a scar on the psyche. Our message wasn’t just about personal choice. It had to challenge society’s hidden class structures or it just ground shame deeper into those seared by prejudice and poverty. And it was ours to offer, nothing more. Set it down, but don’t try to make people pick it up.

There was also another class of people who resisted the message. The top 20%. The system was working for them and saw no reason to examine their financial choices other than to re-balance their portfolio. Social responsibility was not built into our 9-step program for financial independence, but it was behind everything we did. We were motivated by love and service. We built that into the program, but not everyone got it. We were also “save the world” types. We understood overshoot and collapse. We understood that driving people to consume more than they need was, as a strategy for economic growth, equivalent to drug companies pushing opioids. I felt like I was, for a decade, trying to flatten the curve of overconsumption, together with many colleagues in the simple living movement.

With that history, here’s my perspective and advice now in this time of involuntary simplicity, a condition most didn’t anticipate and no one consciously wants.

  1. The first step is to claim your dignity. Your sovereignty. As Viktor Frankl said, ““Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
  2. The next step is to accept what’s happening not as perfect but as reality. Life is hard. Life is beautiful. Life is unfair. Life is what you make it. God loves you. God is punishing humanity for our wayward ways. I was stupid. The system is heartless. So many stories. So many interpretations. This is an ordeal. This is a rite of passage. This is the End of Days. This is the fault of the rich and powerful. This is just natures way to restore balance. Whether a plot or not, the rich will survive and the poor will die. The virus, like the boll weevil, is just looking for a home. It’s not looking at the labels or mottos on your shirt. Bonding to any one interpretation limits your capacity to make good choices for you, your family and your community. We’re all in this together seems to be the point everyone can agree on. Make American Well Again.
  3. The next is to decide for yourself what this means for your life. Choose the frame that will help you stay present and functional. My go-to is Helen Keller’s “Life is either a great adventure or it’s nothing.” I also like Florida Scott Maxwell’s, “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.” In times of great stress, simple guiding lights from prior generations help us. They are rods and staffs and they comfort us. “This too shall pass” helps. Saint Teresa of Avila’s prayer helps, “Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything.” I recommend all of hers. The power to assign meaning, not be stuck with meanings placed upon you – this is a great secret of living.
  4. Breathe. As best you can.
  5. The next step is to do what you can to protect yourself and others, to flatten the curve. We’ve never been in such a time of global unity. Stay home. Wash your hands. Wear a mask and gloves when you go out. Keep 6 feet between you and others on the street. Smile at them. Wish everyone well. Volunteer if you can. Take if you need. Get sunshine, it increased your vitamin D. Walk. In other words, do whatever is in your power. As best you can, because guilt is an immune killer.
  6. Now take a look around. Inventory. What you do and don’t have. What you like and don’t like about how you are living. If this is a rite of passage, no matter what your circumstance, you can take this time out to think about what you can and want to change. The result of a rite of passage, if you survive, is maturity, not fame or fortune. You can reckon with your bruises and traumas, with a commitment to continue your healing while you are dealing with what the pandemic has dealt us all. Here’s where privilege might soften the blow, and living in deep poverty or in confinement is a dangerous injustice.

Here is where personal responsibility meets social responsibility. People on the bottom rung are busy surviving. People a rung up may be also. But those of us higher on the safety ladder are challenged in this moment to turn emotional solidarity into social and political solidarity. Now we are talking about money and politics, about justice (not just bootstrapping gigging). We’re talking about the power of the pen to write as I am now, the power of the pen to write checks. The power of movements, the power of revolution. Amazon workers are stirring in rebellion to unsafe conditions during the virus. Google and Facebook employees are flexing their muscles. Ask yourself, what group do you consider best positioned to make a difference. Join them. Make a contribution. Write the letters they ask you to write. What thought leaders best explain this moment to you. Where are they suggesting you put in your oar? You open your wallet? You examine your privilege. Who is getting the short end of the stick now. People in prison or detention centers. People whose jobs are considered essential yet don’t have the protections needed. Almost everyone I know can ride this out safely and even continue their paid or creative work from home. Now that we’ve patted ourselves down to check for wounds to our wallets or cupboards or health, I challenge us to plant the question in our hearts – who isn’t safe, needs support, needs allies – and see what grows.

Who will you be on the other side of this?

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: art as social change, building personal resilience, coronavirus strategies