We recently visited a beautiful national park, Yellowstone. We had planned this trip early in the year. When the pandemic hit us all, the park was closed and we thought our trip would be cancelled. But a few weeks before our scheduled departure, the park reopened on a very limited basis. The hotels remained closed – but the minimalist cabins we had reserved were opened. The restaurants were closed – but takeout service was available at a few restaurants and the general stores. The number of visitors entering the park daily was limited and as a result, our trail hiking and visiting absolutely incredible nature scenes were relatively uncrowded. With no TV, no cell service, and very limited internet, we were literally off the grid for almost a week. We not only survived, but actually enjoyed a time out from “the rat race”; we were chillaxing.
Wendell Berry, philosopher, writer, teacher, is an advocate for living an agrarian lifestyle. A collection of his essays edited and compiled by Norman Wirzba entitled “The Art of the Commonplace” provides a comprehensive exploration of his philosophy – a significant contrast to the “industrial world” most of us live in. His lifestyle is a simple one; he is satisfied with “enough”.
While I didn’t run across the term “rat race” in his essays, I think most of us identify with the meaning of that phrase. Too often we’re in a hurry instead of pausing to “smell the roses”. Too often we want more when we could be satisfied with enough. Why do we continue to be part of the “rat race”? There are lots of reasons. One reason is that all of us face a daily barrage of advertising that tells us we’ll be happy if only we buy “fill in the blank”. We don’t have to, but we’re constantly under pressure to “buy more”. It can be hard to break the trend – to say “I really don’t need another “fill in the blank”. Or, “the one I have works just fine for me. I don’t really need the newest ‘fill in the blank’”.
Thoreau, in Walden, outlined (and practiced) an interesting calculation to determine whether or not he should spend money. He calculated the number of hours (or days, months, years) he would have to work to pay for some thing he was considering. One example he used was the cost of a train ticket to the adjacent town. Walking to the next town would take him 3 hours. Alternatively, the cost of a train ticket would require 6 hours of wages – so even though he could save considerable time by taking the train, he would have to work twice as long to pay for the ticket. He chose to walk.
And while this example is dated – we typically don’t walk between towns – we may consider spending a lot of money for some convenience that, when compared with how many hours we would have to work to earn enough to pay for it, we might reconsider the purchase.
There’s another dimension to the rat race tradeoff – namely how do we want to enjoy our time – in other words, experience pleasure. Are we working just to acquire more stuff – perhaps to “keep up with the Joneses” or are we working for delayed gratification – for example, saving more so we might be able to retire earlier (or more comfortably)? Some of the best ways to experience pleasure do not break the bank. Consider reading, gardening, listening to music, or enjoying nature. Consider volunteering to help others or mentor a student. These activities can be extremely rewarding.
Another thing to consider – give the 24 x 7 news cycle a break. There are things that are important to know (like who to vote for) but you don’t have to become an expert to figure that out. We recently changed our cable TV plan to a basic one which does not include any cable news. We’re limited to the major network broadcasts and PBS. As a result, we’re watching more movies, documentaries, streaming entertainment, and TV series that we didn’t have time for previously. And we’re saving money!
I recently read an article, Caring for our common home in this Season of Creation. It was written by Sister Ricca Dimalibot, who is a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, and medical director of the CHRISTUS Point of Light Clinic in Dickinson. This organization provides care to uninsured and under served patients in the Greater Houston. Her article reminds us the “Season of Creation”, (that began on September 1 and ends on October 4, the feast of St. Francis) is a time we should reflect on the disparate suffering brought about by global warming, fueled by over consumption in affluent counties. “Each time we are wasteful or take more than we need, we magnify the suffering of the poor who contribute the least to climate change. When we lose sight of the sacredness of creation and damage the environment, in due time, we are harming ourselves.”
This pandemic we are all living through has provided us an opportunity to experience life differently. We can take advantage of some of the lessons we’ve experienced and give the rat race a break. We will be better for it; those most disadvantaged will be better for it; and our planet will be better for it.