Stephen Whitmore

Identifying subservience in my life

Tue Dec 12 09:39:45 PST 2017

I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden recently, with my breakfast. After reading some of his thoughts on economy, coupled with my own contemplations, here is where I’m at.

What do I cherish in this moment, as I sit at my desk and write this?

My laptop, of course. The desk I write on. The cup of coffee sitting beside the laptop on the desk. The warm blanket I have wrapped over my shoulders to ward off the morning chill. The half-eaten bagel on a plate on the other side of my computer.

These all serve me, don’t they?

I’m questioning this. Is that true for everything I mentioned?

Laptop: a wonderfully convenient piece of technology. The organization I’m working at gave it to me. Brand new; all of the bells and whistles. It was very nearly thrust upon me. It it much faster and attractive than the old $200 Lenovo laptop I still keep under my desk. And yet it is not truly mine. When I leave the org, I must return it. In that respect it is not mine. But what about the speed and attractiveness of it? I think these are slavish things as well. If I become deeply accustomed to npm install running and completing in under 5 seconds, the inevitable day that I return to my old $200 laptop will be a painful one: npm install runs typically take 40 seconds to a couple of minutes. Websites load and scroll more slowly. Memory runs out with many browser tabs more quickly. The addiction to even a relatively top-of-the-line computer makes me less and less resilient to my eventual return to something slower. Or, if I decided myself unable to return to a slower computer, I’d be required to spend well over a thousand dollars every few years in order to retain that feeling of snappiness and attractiveness in the computer I own. Isn’t that addiction to the luxury of speed and quality screens a form of subservience?

Coffee: caffeine is an addiction of mine that I am abundantly familiar with. I cannot seem to stop myself from preparing a hot cup each morning after getting up. I wake up, start the kettle, grind the beans by hand, pour them into the french press, and let them percolate until ready. Whenever I’ve half-heartedly tried to stop this mechanical routine, my mind and body rebel with impressive force. Coffee owns me, not I it.

The coffee cup: here I feel differently. It’s an attractive mug: light brown with some darker brown lines coming up from the bottom. It holds liquids well and is uncracked. I certainly prefer it, but wouldn’t hesitate to drink out of something else. So I don’t think there’s an undercurrent of subservience with this object. I drank out of a used glass kombucha bottle I acquired for weeks, and it worked fine for my purposes.

The bagel, slathered in peanut butter: food items. These seem trickier. We must by necessity be attached to food! But if my body and mind demand a bagel or toast each morning (which, by the way, they do), that seems to be where the element of slavishness enters into it. Any food should be able to do in the morning, but I’ve had the luxury of having readily stocked any food my heart desires. This bagel owns me, or my will, in a sense.

As I write this, I’m seeing a theme of attachment versus non-attachment. In things I am not attached to, my interest in them is in the general rather than the specific. The ancient stoic Epictetus writes about this:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.

There’s also a Buddha story about this:

The Buddha told his student, ‘Every morning I drink from my favorite teacup. I hold it in my hands and feel the warmth of the cup from the hot liquid it contains. I breathe in the aroma of my tea and enjoy my mornings in this way. But in my mind the teacup is already broken.’

(There’s something going on here with spirituality and cups)

The cup is already broken because it will eventually be so: either it will be lost, stolen, or mistakenly knocked off its shelf onto the ground. By making that specific cup eternal and necessary in our minds, we are attached to it, and bound to suffer.

I’m not sure how to proceed on this. Foregoing all pleasant things seems too ascetetic. But maybe it’s about, on occasion, foregoing the things we’re knowingly attached to, to not forget that life without those things is not only possible, but just as pleasant and full. Perhaps even more so.

EDIT: If this article spoke to you at all, I think you’ll really enjoy this other article on the subject. They articulate some of the same ideas really well: