We inhabit a world built around a fallacy: that the more we have, the happier we will be. For the fortunate, they reach the “place-of-more” earlier than others, only to realize that they aren’t any happier than when they were ten years old. I am one of those unfortunate fortunates.
I understand that being exposed to this knowledge is a privilege that very few in today’s world experience. People spend entire lives getting to where they want to be. I spent twenty six years, and then decided, it was time to turn back. I graduated from dental school and landed a dream job with my esteemed dream title hand-in-hand with my dream husband and I felt miserable. Every day was a battle, and I knew that I was happier when I was fifteen and didn’t have a dollar to my name. So, I set out to undo the damage, in reverse.
I read books on happiness and living with less, learning about American consumerism and global waste, searched for alternative lifestyles with better environmental and social impact, while also searching for myself daily. I read up on how the mind works, how we process information, how we organize our lives, and most importantly, how to find joy – all with the hope of making sense of things and finding direction. I was lost somewhere underneath the possessions I owned (and thus owned me), the expectations people had, and the norms that wrap our society like a safety blanket. A mountain of more made and meant to keep me (the real me) buried and confused.
The undoing of it all was quite a process. Not only did I have to unwrite the narrative that I told myself, I had to do it while the world repeated that narrative and threw it at my face. I found that the path to what I call “getting back to okay” required one tiny step at a time. Ironically, it was much the same process as having more, but repeated with the thought of having less. I re-programed my mind around ideas and notions that I learned in my youth, in the exact same order that I learned them.
For example, I first learned of materialism when I was a child, watching television commercials for the latest toys or by playing the comparisons game with classmates, who arrived at school with new clothes, notebooks and backpacks. Those were my first exposures to wanting more of material things, and I spent many years trying to collect more stuff. So of course, this was the first thing I got rid of. Decluttering was my process of learning how to live with less.
The second thing I learned to seek is the approval of others. As a child, I tried my best to be agreeable, with my parents, teachers, friends … even people I just met. This turned into a desire for networking in my late teens and early twenties. I spent years trying to make connections and being a yes-woman. That was the second thing I rejected. I decluttered my relationships, almost in a non-conventional way, and kept only close family and a few friends. Rejecting my relationships meant freeing myself from the ties that would have the strongest pull on how I lived my life.
Looking back on it, I had to declutter my relationships in order to negate social norms. It was in high school that I learned the “ideal” progression of college, a profession, a marriage, a home, a family and finally, a good retirement. The thing with norms is that there are always people around you trying to put you in a box. Of course, with the best of intentions, but without really any thought as to what individual wants and needs you may have. I truly believe that if I hadn’t closed myself off from most of my relationships, like a hermit who retreats into the woods, I would not have unlocked the alternative lifestyles that I did. It is difficult to live differently when whispering “wisdoms” turn into urgent persuasions to stick to the status quo. I loved my friends and fam, but self-discovery was something best done on my own.
The last and final thing I decluttered was my achievements and accolades. This was the most difficult for me because I so closely tied what I did to who I was, which are not the same thing. Letting go of my notions of myself felt a lot like losing my identity. It was one of those weird paradoxes: you must lose your identity in order to find yourself.
I spent the last few years discovering what I wanted to do in life, taking up odd jobs as a baker, writer, dog walker, and dentist. Early 2020 slowed me down enough to realize I was approaching this self-discovery with the idea of more, more, more again. Unwriting narratives is hard work!
In March, I stopped dog-sitting to prevent social contact. I closed the bakery that I spent all of 2019 building. I reduced my dentistry hours. And each time I chose less, I got closer to becoming who I was. After all my experiences, I had enough confidence to take one giant leap of faith. In November, I quit my dental job altogether and really let go of everything I associated myself with.
I cannot put into words how it felt. Like a giant weight was lifted and I was unearthed from all that darkness. It was the first time since graduating dental school that I saw light.
Life isn’t perfect, I’ll tell you that. It never is, which is what makes it beautiful. But I’ve gotten to a place where I feel okay. There is peace that comes with that. I want to stay in this space. I fear that getting to a place of “great” is just another way of getting “more” out of life. Perhaps we all need to aim for some middle ground in this already tumultuous world we’re been born into. Perhaps our new marker for success should be getting back to being okay.