Doing Without, or Doing, Again

In August 2013, I started what I intended to be a year in which I would “do without” something I was used to for a month at a time. At the end of the year, according to my plan, I would have had twelve opportunities to experience the extent to which I had the discipline to “do without.” I wanted to test the boundaries of my discipline.

I learned that my discipline was poor, at best. Ultimately, my experiment failed. No, it was not the experiment that failed; it was me. I failed miserably.

The first month, I did without coffee; that was easy.

The second month, I did without alcohol; that was easy, as well.

The third month, I did without meat; well, for three weeks. I lied to myself when I considered that moderately successful.

The fourth month, I did without social media (except for my blog); but not for long. I gave up Facebook for several weeks, but rationalized my way back to it before I’d been away for a month.

The fifth month, I did without restaurant meals; but only briefly. Again, I rationalized the failure; “It’s December and people expect you to go out with them.” That sort of rationalization. It was not just that. I allowed myself to rationalize my way out of my commitment by using the excuse that I should not force my wife to suffer “doing without” just because I wanted to prove something to myself. That was an excuse without decency; I was not exposing her to anything she was unable to withstand and she did not “do without” anything during my experiment.

By the sixth month, I had abandoned my year of doing without. I did not make a big deal of the abandonment of my grand experiment. I acknowledged it, sort of, but in a way that made abject failure seem a little like a moderate success.

This morning, as I was reading what I wrote about my experience in “doing without,” something I wrote two and one-half months in struck me:

As I was mulling over what this exercise in doing without may be teaching me, I kept coming back to the fact that my experience is purely voluntary. The challenges of my “doing without” pale in comparison to the daily experiences of people the world over who have no choice but to do without. People everywhere do without electricity, running water, adequate food, sanitary living conditions, and reasonable assurances they are safe from attack. They live in a state of imposed asceticism with little hope for escape.

My one-month experiments are pin-pricks compared to the open, festering wounds of people who have no choice but to live month-by-month and year-by-year in conditions that I might be unable to tolerate and sustain for even a week.

Though my one-month experiments thus far have not been especially difficult, at least they have begun to make me realize and appreciate how truly little I suffer in comparison to others. I hope to keep learning from these experiences.

Perhaps I can learn more than to simply appreciate what I have. Perhaps I will learn not only that I don’t need some of the luxuries to which I’ve become so accustomed, but that I am doing myself, and the world around me, a disservice by taking advantage of their availability. Maybe doing without is good.

After reading those paragraphs, I realized how little I actually learned from the experience that, only a few months later, I abandoned entirely.

I watched part of a TED Talk a few days ago, in which a guy named Matt Cutts spoke of learning the limits of his discipline by doing, for just thirty days, something he’d always wanted to try. He said it opened his eyes and his mind. He’d done things ranging from riding his bike to work for thirty days to taking a picture every day for thirty days. His experiences opened him up to trying new things he would never had done before starting his thirty-day challenges.

My thirty-day challenges were to NOT do something for thirty days at a stretch. Maybe that’s the problem; my approach was to test my discipline in negative fashion. No, that’s not the way to think about it. I think, perhaps, it’s time to return to the concept to see whether the boundaries of my discipline can withstand tougher tests; abandon some things for thirty days, alternating with trying something new for thirty days. Or some combination thereof. As Matt Cutts said in his TED Talk, “You can do ANYTHING for thirty days.” We’ll see.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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