For the last decade or so, I have single-mindedly dedicated myself to maximizing the freedom and minimizing any unwanted obligation in my life. I became a “digital nomad” so that external factors could not control where I chose to live, and so that nothing could stop me from traveling 12 months a year if I so chose. I have avoided serious romantic relationships and having children in order to avoid responsibility for the happiness of another human being.
I have seen how other human lives are weighed down by worry due to duties – Duties that were imposed, in some cases, by not being born into the comfortable middle class life that I happened to be born into, due to a combination of extraordinary good luck and my parents working harder than I ever will. But in many cases, these duties seem to freely chosen for nigh-incomprehensible reasons. Those around me, including many who weren’t much less lucky than me in terms of the hand they were dealt at birth, seemed to slavishly follow the conventional path of self-imposed obligation – Obligation to a full-time job; obligation to their spouses, their children; obligation to maintaining their expensive houses full of expensive things. I didn’t see much to envy in that kind of life, and mostly I still don’t. You might think my aloof freedom has made me arrogant and dismissive of people who choose more conventional lives of family and professional success. You wouldn’t be 100% wrong there; but I’m also keenly aware that having a ridiculous degree of autonomy and control over my own life probably hasn’t made me much happier in the long run.
And therein lie the hidden benefits of having a life free of obvious hardship, free of obvious external challenges to fight, be frustrated by, and push back again.
First of all, people are all too ready to blame their unhappiness – temporary or otherwise – on external hindrances. But as someone who has whittled the external hindrances of life down to almost nothing, I have learned that the industrious human mind can find hindrance and unhappiness anywhere, under any circumstances. The entropic law of happiness and the hedonic treadmill ensure that even a life seemingly free of major difficulty will eventually slide into dissatisfaction unless endless, exhausting work is done to maintain that happiness. Even the lack of anything to push against becomes a hindrance in and of itself. This experience has also shown me the truth of Buddhist principle; no wonder Siddhartha had to leave the palace – he couldn’t have possible stayed happy there forever.
Second, when I can get past my moments of superciliousness, my terrible freedom has produced another unexpected benefit: A deeper sense of compassion for those around me. It is a greater sense of compassion for people whose lives are obviously terrible, as well as for those whose unhappiness is seemingly more mundane. When it comes to people with classically “bad” lives – the terminally ill, those living with chronic pain, victims of recurring abuse – I guess you could go either way. If the human condition involves the inexorable struggle against the slow slide into unhappiness, no matter what one’s circumstances, then you could perversely argue that individuals living under seemingly awful circumstances have no special claim to misery. But I’d prefer to look at it from the other side: that when even mundane problems and the basic laws of physics and human existence are enough to produce ample dissatisfaction, people with truly terrible lives deserve a special degree of compassion – after all, they’re basically being kicked while they’re down.
And for those whose sorrow seems to be all out of proportion to their minuscule problems, I’ve also learned that we are fully capable of making our own private hell from the most basic raw materials. Unfortunately, when people say that someone’s problems are of their own creation, they usually mean it dismissively – that the person who has created their own problems is not deserving of our compassion. But I’d say the fact that we’re so adept at creating our own suffering makes everyone around us even more deserving of our compassion. After all, isn’t unnecessary suffering the most tragic kind?
And I might not have realized all of this if my life weren’t so damn easy.