Imagine this: you are walking to work on a lovely morning in March. The sky is that vivid, cold blue that only occurs in early spring and late autumn – something to do with the angle of the sun’s light piercing the atmosphere – the trees are just beginning to awake; here and there are rags of blossom, the sprig of a leaf unfolding, but broadly speaking the branches remain stripped and stark and there’s a streamlined beauty to everything. Perhaps there is a thin line of cloud somewhere, a contrail perhaps, and the sun’s light is simultaneously harsh and weak. Harsh on the eye, light on energy and warmth. You are walking to work and it is cold. You are wrapped up in a woollen coat, a pink knitted hat on your head, and you can feel the edge of cold in the air, a sight condensing of the breath. It is early. The streets are not yet busy. The sound of your heels striking the pavement is sharp, musical, the thinness of the air giving an almost hollow quality to the sound. You are happy. The day is beautiful, uplifting, so different to the day before where the cloud cover hovered so low it felt like it was touching the top of your hat and the rain drizzled relentlessly down as it had done the day before, and the day before that, and the days and days that preceded them. You like rain, but when it rains every day it gets you down.
You have been reading a book, a series of letters from working women from the early 20th Century. The lives they describe are different to your, more privileged existence. You are thinking about it. You are thinking about those women and their indomitable spirits, their acceptance and endurance. You are thinking about the deprivation they lived with, their stoicism and hopefulness. Their willingness to take a risk with their meagre, scraped together savings, in the local, and new, Co-operative Society. Their joy at rising early to walk over the hills, meeting the sunrise. How different their lives were to yours, and yet how rich and full of hope. How little their needs and expectations. A working bath. Access to books. Time to read. These were all that they needed. Little things you take for granted.
You think about their lives and you think about yours. You think about the prevalence of depression and anxiety, the sheer overwhelming press of unhappiness you see all around you every day. The frustrations. The dissatisfaction. Compared to the lives of these women, you think we have it easy. What is there to complain about?
And then you think about what it means to be comfortable. How we have traded value for comfort, fulfilment for ease.
You remember being a child and coming in from playing out in the cold. Peeling the frozen, wet woollen gloves from your hands. Pulling off the wellington boots and the sodden socks beneath. Walked into the living room and sank down in front of the 2 bar fire. How wonderful it felt, warming your chilblained hands, the warmth breaking the numbness of your limbs.
Now it is never cold. The house is heated. When you rise in the morning it is warm; when you go to bed it is warm. When you leave the house and get into your car it is warm. Nothing is ever cold anymore. You do not value the warmth, because you have nothing to compare it to. You don’t go out to play in the cold anymore.
And you think about how we eat because food is there and not because we’re hungry. You have never had a dinner that consisted of a cup of tea and a scrap of dry bread because if you don’t have the money to buy a meal you can always borrow it. Those women didn’t have that capability. They gave up their bread to feed their children, and when they had money for meat they enjoyed their meal. They had suffered deprivation, and because of that they valued the small comforts.
We take drugs when we are sad. We take drugs when we are uncomfortable. We drug ourselves asleep and awake. We will do anything to avoid pain.
We experience discomfort and call it pain.
We have plenty. Everywhere is abundance. Because we can have everything, we desire everything but we never question if fulfilling that desire is what we really need.
Because we have an abundance, nothing is scarce and nothing has value. We have to grow more and more inventive to find value and scarcity. Only the rich can afford it (or so it seems). This inequality breeds resentment.
And we are dissatisfied.
What if the answer is less, rather than more? What if pain is what makes life meaningful?