Viability. Arguably the pivotal word in my tagline (“writer/educator seeks viable life of mindfulness and creativity”), perhaps it’s time I took a stab at defining it.
Actually, this post was originally going to be titled “Semi-voluntary Simplicity.” After years of living like a grad student and putting material well-being well below the pursuit of dreams, I wonder if I’ve pushed simplicity past the point of viability. At times, this lifestyle truly feels like a blessing: I get a sense of what’s truly essential in a needs-versus-wants kind of way, and it frees up time and money for other priorities. Yet the narrower range of choices and the riskiness of doing without ready transportation, insurance, and savings offset the liberating feeling that comes with simplicity.
For example, the car I’d driven the past fifteen years was too old to make the move to Austin, so I decided I would start my life in central Texas carless. (Part of the appeal of Austin was that this is a fairly feasible option.) Mind you, I have the money to buy a new car—but the times I really need one are relatively few, and the longer I can manage without, the more latitude I have in generating a viable income doing only, or mostly, things I love.
Yet as much as I love being carless for carlessness’ sake—how many lifestyle choices are simultaneously good for my wallet, my health, and the environment?—it’s also problematic. Traveling by bike and bus requires more time and gets in the way of getting acquainted with the area.
But what does all this have to do with viability? Also, where’s the overlap between viability, sustainability, and self-sufficiency?
For me, viability means a self-sustaining lifestyle, one that balances respect for my own passions and joy with a mindful respect for interdependence and a desire to act for the benefit of all. It’s about not denying myself, yet simultaneously reducing my footprint and looking beyond my own comfort and ease to what is required for everyone to enjoy an authentic, sustainable life.
That all sounds good enough, but again, where are the lines? I intend to discuss sustainability and Right Livelihood further in future posts: for now, let’s consider what viability means from a personal standpoint.
Whether or not I ever do these things, does viability mean being able to buy a house or raise a family? When I’m dreaming, I like to imagine having enough a house with a hammock and a jacuzzi tub, a baby (or grown-up) grand piano, and land for a dog and cat or two to run around. Quiet spaces and spaces for making noise, a comfortable home with tons of natural light and easy access to woods; more birdsong than traffic noise; stars, not street lights.
Yet at the moment, much of what I own is run down, old and/or ragged, and I occasionally how that will strike potential dates or visitors to my tiny apartment. At the same time, even if I had more money I’d be concerned about buying more than I truly need when so many, in so many places, regard my minimal means as wealth.
I do wonder how differently I would live if I had money. I’m sure I’d travel more and get a reliable, fuel-efficient car. I’d likely buy more books, replace my computer, stereo and bike, and eat better. Adequate insurance and savings sound nice as well. Mostly, though, I think I’d set money more for the future, looking to buy that house, that piano, and possibly that patch of land.
As I said above, a principle benefit of simplicity is that gaining a sense of what’s truly essential, through living on relatively little. Many people much wiser than I cite the spiritual benefits of a sustainable life. For example, Buddhism’s Lovingkindness Sutra declares that “the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace” should “not desire great possessions even for one’s family” or “take upon oneself the burden of riches.”
Questions persist, of course, over how much and how long one can sacrifice for the sake of a dream without building up too much frustration or resentment. When I consider what I’ve done without all these years, of course I sometimes wonder if it’s been worth it. And I must say: for all the uncertainty and raggedness surrounding me, I know I’m much happier following my bliss than when I’ve worked jobs that weren’t meaningful and fulfilling, however nice the pay and benefits.
This reminds me of a question I like to ask people: what’s your ideal life, how are you living now, and how much of a gap exists between the two? Harking back to my tagline, making a decent living doing what I love is in fact my definition of viability. I feel compelled to prove that this is possible, even though I have yet to make it a reality. I can make money, and I can do things I love. The question that occupies my waking moments is whether I can manage to do both, simultaneously, before I run out of the savings that are funding this grand experiment.
If I need to cut back on my dream-pursuing in order to make money, I know I can do that; I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. However, for the time being at least, I am gladly holding fast to this personal truth: I am unwilling to settle for a good life so long as I think I can create a great one.