A revised and updated version of this essay can be found in A Minimalist Abroad: Essays on Finding Happiness, now available at Amazon!
There was a point in my life within the corporate world where I clearly knew that it was killing me. Stress was causing the chronic pain I’d lived with since an accident as a teenager to flare up so intensely that I could barely move. That same stress, plus a lack of anything resembling quality sleep, had turned mild asthma into ongoing respiratory distress. The same erratic schedule that screwed with my sleep patterns also kept me from eating regular or nutritious meals which, along with (surprise!) stress, left me with ulcers. At the point that I was on so many different medications that I was taking pills whose sole purpose was to offset the side effects of other drugs I knew that my life had spun out of control.
Pain As A Catalyst For Defeat
When I was a kid, before I had any inkling as to what I might want to be when I grew up, I knew what I didn’t want to be. I did not want to grow up to be my grandmother. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her dearly. She was a wonderful woman, she basically raised me and took good care of me. But she had health problems, and they kept her from doing a lot of things. As a teenager, I learned that a lot of the limitations she suffered weren’t actual physical restrictions, but self-imposed restraints. The level of discomfort that she experienced was not as debilitating as she believed it to be. Doctors actually encouraged her to do more, to take walks and get some moderate exercise. She was told, flat out, that moving around more would make her feel better. She preferred to spend most of her time inside her apartment, in her comfy chair, watching TV and reading magazines.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be disabled; I didn’t ever want to be that openly defeated. My grandmother had reached a point where, because she couldn’t do some things as well as she used to, she didn’t feel like she could or should do anything. With no real understanding of what she was going through, I swore that I would never give up like that. It was that attitude that kept me going toward the end of my corporate lifestyle choice. I might be barely able to walk, unable to breathe, and throwing up blood, but damn it, I’m on top of things here. If it hasn’t killed me yet, it must be making me stronger, right?
Not being able to do things, or do them as well as you could before, is incredibly frustrating. We have an image of who we are that includes and is sometimes build upon the foundation of our abilities. We don’t like being told no. We want to be exceptional, and never have to accept that we have limitations.
As a teenager, following the accident, I was challenged with limited mobility. I was still at an age where I thought I was invincible and immortal. I did not follow the directions that I was given by doctors. I did not rest. I did not allow myself time to heal. I did not take advantage of all of the physical therapy available to me. I did not feel that I needed it, and I did not want to be seen as needing it. Today, I wish that my younger self hadn’t been so consumed with ego, because I wouldn’t have some of the ongoing problems that I have.
When I was in art school, I was challenged with creative limitations. I had to work with limited materials and techniques, and I had finite time — deadlines — to complete projects. In college, those same limitations existed; after my first semester I learned how many credits I could realistically take at a time and still manage the workload, and how many part-time jobs I could juggle and still deal with classes and a social life.
As a self-employed writer, I’m challenged with a very tight operating budget. There’s only so much money that can go into production costs, advertising, and other expenses if I plan to make a profit and be able to pay the bills. These are very real limitations that I have to accept.
Dealing with illness and injury is no different than accepting other limitations. They don’t necessarily have to stop you from doing things, but they will shape how you approach and do those things.
Pain As Motivation For Minimalism
With any limitation, you need to begin by acknowledging that it exists. Admit that you’re in pain, and allow yourself to feel not only the pain, but the doubt and the fear. It is part of you. I’m not fond of my chronic pain by any means, but this many decades down the line feeling angry and resentful at it is nothing more than a waste of my time. Holding myself back and letting be a greater limitation than it actually is, as my grandmother did, is just allowing the pain to win.
Let go of the image you have of yourself, and embrace your new capabilities. Look at limitations as creative challenges. This is where minimalism comes in. Find the unnecessary steps that you can cut out, and save your energy. I have become adept at finding the shortest route and the means to take the fewest steps, because my pain manifests when I do too much walking. I still walk, but I make sure there are places to sit down and allow myself time to rest, and work in productive things that I can be doing while seated. I have mindless tasks that I can do when the pain makes it difficult to concentrate. I work with it, and I work around it, but I don’t allow it to stop me.
It’s also a reason to own fewer things, and to keep the things I own organized. The less clutter I have to dust, the less work I have to do finding things, the more I can spend my finite energy and the limited time I can spend standing on more important things.
Most importantly, be grateful for the things you can do. Because there are things that you can do. There are always things you can do. You only need to adjust your thinking.
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