How to Create Freedom in the Age of Dependency
Last week Americans celebrated the Fourth of July. It was on this day in 1776, that the founders signed Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant Declaration of Independence where he outlined the grievances against Great Britain- specifically 27 infringements upon representative government. While many Americans have probably forgotten the specifics of our independence story- “King George the what?”- their remains a deep passion for this concept of independence.
We go crazy for freedom and rightly so. It honors our individual power to choose how we wish to live and create the best of our situation. It recognizes that nomadic spirit within us all who wants to wander, chase, flee, create, and explore. Freedom entails a sense of limitless possibility- like a full tank of gas and the open road. Yet, when I look around I’m convinced that we’re racing to the opposite extreme. Most Americans seem to be short on gas, headed down one large, straight superhighway. Oblivious to the complex web of sparsely populated trails, they plunge forth in a headlong dash towards limited living and the age of dependency. America, the free?
In his book, Tribe, war reporter Sebastian Junger presents a startling reality. As the original colonists settled what would be the United States, bringing over what was at the time the highest standard of living in human history, there are zero records of the native tribal populations ever trying to join “modern” society. Yet, on countless occasions, American colonists threw off the trappings of their comfortable lives to join native tribes. Why would people choose this lack of security and comfort, over a world that promised boundless comfort and progress? As Junger put it, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.” Humans have always been necessary to group survival. This was a real purpose. The ability to not feel necessary marks a staggering society-wide dependency on complex systems that keep us fed and safe. While this is not going away, perhaps we’ve let our dependency go too far.
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” –Henry David Thoreau
Regardless of orientation, race, or creed, the majority have been swept up by a new sort of faith. The religion of instant gratification, better known as consumerism. Consumerism sells a belief that purchases will solve our problems. When there are not enough problems, needs are created with the help of complex marketing and social media’s mass envy machine. Thus our wants are reconceived as needs and the list of “problems” grows exponentially. Twenty-five years ago, caller ID was magic. Fifteen years ago it was no big deal to have a mobile phone that could only text and call. It made sense. Today, you “need” a phone with a top-notch camera, that connects you to all the world’s information, while storing all your music, audiobooks, podcasts and more. You’d feel deprived without it. Likewise, anyone having a baby in today’s world quickly becomes proficient about her immense needs. Parents who slept in a dresser drawer are busy designing the world’s most perfect sleep environment. My high maintenance dude apparently needs a bassinette, a pack and play, a crib, and 10,000 other sleep-centered contraptions.
Here’s the deal, I enjoy having stuff too! I’m over the moon that my baby’s stroller can do advanced Jiu-Jitsu to convert itself into a car seat. And while it initially felt like a luxury, his noise machine has been re-purposed as MY noise machine. He can get his own. The market economy has promoted staggering efficiency and innovation. To some degree, our ever-increasing “needs” are inevitable signs of progress. New tools come in. Tedious tasks are automated and we must either adapt or get left behind. Any farmer not willing to trade in his manual plow and mule was gone long ago.
My critique is of the religious association many have developed between happiness and the things they are dependent upon, which often serves to preclude a path to deeper fulfillment. We all know “money doesn’t buy happiness” yet our actions speak to a very different belief system complete with rituals, sacred texts, and holy seasons. For most, our default response to any issue from boredom to envy is a new purchase. It is our primary operating system. Consumerism has gotten so religious, in fact, that even faiths jumped on board. Much of modern religion has been reconceived as a Santa’s Wishlist. You pray and ask God to give you these things that you want. Then you die and go to a place where streets are paved with gold, your every want is satisfied, and life is perpetual ease. Sounds like a rather unfulfilling way to do eternity.
“The things you own end up owning you.” –Tyler Durden, Fight Club
More often than not, these things we “need” create a lack of freedom. You need that fancy new car, that oversized house, that brand new TV, the supreme television package, and the latest and greatest mattress. We finance a lifestyle that engulfs us in monthly payments imprisoning us to inflexible jobs. Feeling trapped, we opt for indulgences to create happiness. Eating out and shopping offer a short-term burst of dopamine. As treats they are wonderful, yet as habits, they immerse us deeper into the cycle of earning more to get the things we need to be happy.
Still, it goes further than just lack of freedom and independence. Brilliant marketers have invested in the neuroscience to truly create an age of dependency. Create addiction and you create a consistent consumer. Processed and packaged salt, sugar, and fat have been sold as the “normal” diet, while scientists hack our bliss point and the methods of ingredient delivery to engineer craving every bit as strong as our most hardcore drugs. The development of an attention economy led to masterful technological design intended to create addictive scrolling, scanning, and digital consumption. Anxiety proliferates as our brains learn to crave distraction, outrage, and entertainment. When do we allow boredom in?
Yet, few see their actions as anything but normal. Normalized dependency conspires to keep us seated and consuming- a perfect cocktail for the quick demise of our physical freedom. As our bodies deteriorate, abilities are lost and we become more dependent on hospitals for medication and invasive life-saving procedures. As our bizarre environment conspires to induce physical and mental destruction, we can only assume the answer lies in a purchase- the answer lies in a pill or self-medication. The U.S. accounts for 45% of global pharmaceutical sales and has watched drug overdoses climb from 20,000 per year to over 64,000 per year between 2001 and 2016.
Distractibility, anxiety, depression, and obesity could be the greatest gifts of our lives. They could awaken us to the discord between our current patterns and our biology’s needs. These challenges could reveal a route to self-discovery and self-mastery that truly leads to freedom. However, in the age of dependency, these are often just another problem that needs another quick fix. Rather than a call for education, it is the potential for another product to develop that we “need.”
The only solution to the age of dependency is to individually shift our mindset. Having problems is not a problem. Having problems has never been a problem. Fulfilled living comes from finding purpose and solving the right problems. It comes from immersion in the right projects and, of course, finding harmony between your environment and biological needs. Learning and growth must be reconceived, not as a means to an end, but as the primary inclination of the fulfilled.
After reading The Simplified Life, by Emily Ley, my wife has embarked on a challenge to donate and discard the mounds of useless stuff crowding our lives and subconsciously agitating our minds. While I was away she threw out half of our kitchen. Had I been here to question each item it may have been torture. Yet, I have no idea which of my billion coffee cups are now sitting in someone else’s house. I have no idea what spatulas didn’t pass the cut. I just know that I love my new kitchen and its calm order. The same goes for the junk drawer, my closet, and every corner of our home. We all tend to hang on to everything, “just in case.” I’d convinced myself that I should save each months Men’s Health Magazine in case I wanted to reference that single pearl of wisdom housed in each. Of course, I never would. I’d have no clue where to even start.
There is a rare freedom that comes from dispatching with something you thought you needed. I suggest we all do this, not just in our homes, but in our lives. How many social media platforms do we need? How many TV channels, and how many TV’s? What is redundant? What is not useful? What is distracting us from those things that are most essential? What is getting in the way of embarking on that adventure, connecting with those vital few, or beginning that purposeful project?
Even people can become anchors keeping us harnessed by who they want us to be and how they want us to use our time. You can not be all things to all people. Burn no bridges, but allow yourself to grow apart guilt free. Preserve those vital few relationships and free yourself from the tyranny of other people’s expectations. You are not responsible for their emotions.
Old habits die hard. Making change is a process that becomes infinitely easier when you understand your tendencies and work to manipulate your environment. What habits or structures can we create to promote those real priorities? Perhaps the addition of No Phone Zones would clear some space for what matters most. You could meditate. It is the practice of not attaching to each thought and thereby creating freedom from impulsive responses. It is a method of simplifying your brain. In any moment, you only need yourself and a sense of purpose. It is production, not consumption that will create happiness. The rest is fluff. Invest in your own growth and the rest will take care of itself.
For more help simplifying your life and creating priorities, check out IHD’s 21st Century Productivity Course.