Voluntary Deprivation

Best shower ever?  Easy, the first one after a weeklong backpacking trip in the High Sierras many moons ago.  Why?  Because I don’t think I’ve ever been as dirty, and afterwords, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as clean.  The impossibility of showering made me appreciate a daily activity I’d come to take for granted.

Best road ride of the year (so far)?  The first one upon returning home from Europe, May 25th.  Despite the lack of fitness, I felt like the seven year old kid I once was cycling to the park to prepare for baseball tryouts. 

On the other hand, as a Pacific Northwesterner, I’m certain I appreciate sunny dry weather more than my brother and friends who live in Southern California.

It seems like it’s human nature to gradually take for granted those things—health, close friendships, sunshine, romantic love, nature, warm showers—that enrich day-to-day life.  I get frustrated with myself for only appreciating my health after I fall ill.  Similarly, I take working out too much for granted.  That is unless my back gives out or I develop a micro-tear in one of my calf muscles.

What’s the secret to appreciating more consistently and deeply those people and things that enrich day-to-day life?

Three weeks ago LAJ and I were hiking in Grindelwald, Switzerland in the Swiss Alps.  We decided to travel to Grindelwald based on the recommendation of a close friend.  “Come on,” I said to our friend, “we live next to Mount Rainier, how much nicer can it be?”  “Imagine three Mount Rainers,” he replied, “and you’re right in the middle of them.” 

We had a tough time getting to Grindelwald, arriving at 10:30p from Cinque Terre and Milan, Italy.  Since it was pitch black we struggled to figure out which mountain path led to our hostel until some friendly people helped us get going in the right direction.  The next morning I immediately pulled the curtains back and looked out the window at. . . fog. . . we were socked in.  My first (and only) task of the day was to hike back down the hill to the train station to purchase our next set of train tickets.  As I hiked down the hill, the fog began to lift.  It was like sitting in the nicest performing arts center imaginable and watching gigantic curtains open.  By the time I hit the train station, it looked like I could reach out and touch the peaks.  Spectacular, awe-inspiring beauty.  Indeed, Rainier times three (with cows). 

Later that afternoon, during our hike, L and I stood wide mouthed at the sight of the most amazing mountain peak we’d ever seen.  [A and J were in “Yeah nice whatever, three more days until we get to see our friends” mode.]  Standing there, I said to L, “You know, the amazing thing about this view is the locals probably get used to it and take it for granted.”  To which she replied, “Oh no, impossible.”  To which I replied, “I’m not so sure.”  I let it go, too transcendent a setting to play one of our favorite games, “Whose most stubborn?”

Fast-forward three-four hours to a very nice hotel restaurant where  L’s parents treated us to an amazing meal.  While eating, we befriended the waiter/maitre de, a middle-aged local cook/mountain climber who grew up in Grindelwald.  In the middle of some mountain climbing talk, L asked, “Having grown up here, do you take the incredible views for granted?”  I took some pride in the fact that my thesis was nagging at her.  To which he said, “Yes.  I’ve lived here my entire life except for about ten years when I left to attend cooking school and then cook in different places in Europe.  When I returned home, it wasn’t until I began listening to visitors talk about the mountain views that I realized how special they are.”  At this point, L shot me a telepathic message that only people married two decades plus are able to transmit.  “Wipe that smirk off your face.” 

One way to stay appreciative of the people and things that enrich daily life is to take purposeful breaks from them.  You’re probably familiar with the “voluntary simplicity” movement.  I’m thinking of something related, “voluntary deprivation.”  This could be tricky, in this economy in particular, where a lot of people are fighting involuntary deprivation.  What about starting out small, and quietly and humbly giving up driving, caffeine, eating out, or television (after the US and British Opens of course) for a day, week, month, or year?  

Cynicism and semi-abrupt transition alert.  Modern parenting in the burbs seems to be based on the complete opposite notion of “immediate gratification”.  For example, there are some movie franchises (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates) that 99% of my friends take their children to within the first seven days of a release.  Guaranteed.  Similarly, several years ago, in the course of a few days it seemed, every parent in my neighborhood bought their children Razor Scooters.  Young people are no different.  I think they’d appreciate going to the movies with friends or families more if they did it less often.  Similarly, I think they’d appreciate their material possessions more if they had fewer of them and had to work longer and harder for them.

Admittedly, proposing voluntary deprivation is counter-cultural, but I’m going to continue to think about it until you convince me there are better ways to be truly and continually appreciative of the people and things that enrich our daily lives.

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