In my early twenties, when I was living in Cambodia, I went from living in a crummy bedroom in a shared apartment with no windows, no hot water and a whole host of insects, to a luxurious flat overlooking one of the best hotels in town.
I have previously mentioned how I didn’t feel my life had turned for the worse just because my living conditions weren’t up to par with what I had experienced in the past. By accepting the fact that my happiness and tranquility are independent of my surroundings, I become impervious of my surroundings.
So, given this fact, why did I move out again?
It was quite simple, the term was up, and so we all had to move out. I now have a six times more expensive apartment with a lot of natural light and all the amenities I could wish for.
Of course, I didn’t need to find such an apartment, I could easily have found a similar crummy apartment for a fraction of the cost.
But I didn’t.
Am I being a hypocrite?
Quite possibly, but exploring that question is not the point of this essay. I enjoyed living in a nicer apartment, but it’s referred to as a preferred indifferent.
I’ve written about this before, we should only truly care for the things that are under our direct control; everything else pales in comparison.
The things that we can control – if we’re lucky – are our thoughts, actions and judgements; everything else can be easily taken away or destroyed by other people. Our bodies are a clear example of this. While it may appear that we are in control – most of us can lift our right arm above our heads when we wish – that is actually not the case.
I need only to chain that arm, and that apparent freedom and control disappears. That wouldn’t be very difficult to do, but trying to change your thoughts or behaviour, especially if you are aware and practice using sound judgement, is virtually impossible.
If we learn to cultivate relative indifference to the things that are not under our control (like the size and finish of our apartments) and focus on the things that matter, we will enjoy life to the full.
Now, of course, I prefer to have money over not having money, to have health over sickness and life over death, but at what cost? Would I want to earn millions if I had to become morally bankrupt? Absolutely not, because acting in accordance to my own ethical framework is something that is under my control and thus is far more important than the size of my bank account.
That’s why I don’t sell drugs, weapons and children for a living.
I want to discuss how I appreciate the things I have now so much more because I experience living without them. Having lived my whole life with hot water, taking cold showers for almost six months was quite a wake-up call – literally every morning.
Now I still enjoy having cold showers (apparently, they are very good for one), but I enjoy them more because I can turn the knob and have hot water on command.
This is something that I had never truly appreciated, and now I am thankful for it at least once a day! Now multiply that feeling for almost every detail that makes up life, and I have a thousand and one reasons to be thankful every day.
So my point is this: without the bitter, we wouldn’t enjoy the sweet.
That’s the problem with “The West” as a society. So many of us are having it so good, having lifestyles that even a generation or two ago would have been unthinkable, that we don’t even realise how much we have.
Because we have no experience of going without, we don’t appreciate the things we have.
Can you imagine a world where we achieve everything we want to achieve and have everything we want to have without any kind of struggle or hardship? Nothing would have any value because it would be easily available at a snap of our fingers.
A great example of this is how we take the internet for granted. We an almost unlimited amount of information and educational resources, yet the average person spends most of their time online on social media and entertainment. Can you imagine explaining this to a university professor from one hundred years ago? He would be speechless, and quite rightly so.
None of us can fully escape this feeling of getting used to what we have and taking things for granted.
However, we can try and fight this tendency by meditating (literally or figuratively) on how things could be worse, how they have been worse in the past, and even how they might become worse in the future. This helps us to remember that most things are only transient or “borrowed” as Epictetus put it.
Life itself is only transient; death is a necessary part of life, making it special, precious, worth caring about.
None of this would make any sense without death, pain, or sacrifice. Nothing would be worth doing.
Death in inescapable, and so we must face it and learn to accept and embrace it as a natural part of actually being alive in the first place.