Proximity to death, or to the specter of death, can (and probably should) be a transformative experience. I recently wrote a piece about surviving a violent, perspective-shaking car crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. What I didn’t fully realize at the time, or even in the days and weeks that followed, was just how deeply it affected my sense of self and my sense of purpose.
Some of the effects were immediate, concrete, and observable right away. For instance, I immediately decided that I need to be more mindful and present in the time I spend with my family. I also immediately knew I needed to start pursuing goals I’d been keeping on the backburner for so long that the backburner itself was beginning to dissolve into empty space.
But the more I reflect on how I feel, where I want to go, and what I want to do, the more I realize that I’ve subconsciously (and now, consciously) been reshaping my priorities, reevaluating my outlook, and realigning my aspirations in much more comprehensive and far-reaching ways than I initially thought, as a result of the accident.
So I’ve started paying more attention, noticing how different my habits have become in just a few months.
What’s become clear is that the mindsets, the obsessions, the priorities, the pet interests, and the fragmentary perspectives that are peeling off and dropping from my personality fall into four primary buckets.
And these buckets represent the four things I’m quitting after my brush with death.
Nobody quits vanity. I know. This one is impossible. But you can at least bring it within reason, circumscribe it, and reflect on it honestly and critically.
At various points in my life I have been the acolyte, the celebrant, and the actual deity in my own cult of self. This cult of self hit its unprecedented peak on an evening last year when it took me nearly an hour to pick out something sufficiently stylish and edgy to wear to a pretty ho-hum party thrown by people for whom I felt nothing but sincere indifference. And while I haven’t hit this peak again since, the cult of self persists.
I have cared deeply about having very high-quality skincare products, because the daily email I’ve been receiving from GQ tells me very frequently that this is really important. I have spent tons of money on product regimens, on keeping up with fashionable designer menswear, on decorating myself with the accoutrements of status, and just generally performing my conception of coolness every minute of the day.
I cared deeply about persona, and I meticulously cultivated one capable of satisfying and sustaining my relentless vanity.
But now, realizing I very easily (and, honestly, very realistically) could have died in a totally random car accident in the middle of nowhere, it occurs to me that this cult of self I’ve been practicing for quite a while is not much more than a really slick, expensive facade for a self I don’t really completely know yet, a self in a perpetual state of becoming, which I’m now inclined to think is probably the optimal state for a self to be in.
So while I still care what I look like and how I present myself, I’m determined to quit the cultish, material, solipsistic elements of vanity.
I’ve tried to quit excess before. But this time it’s getting pretty serious. I’ve always been the type of person who purchases things for anticipated, but probably over-optimistically anticipated, use. I buy backups for things I haven’t actually even used. I acquire as if life were a staircase, at the top of which was completion, the successful acquisition of all things necessary for happiness.
I’ve always leaned this way, though. I remember, as an undergraduate literature student, reading T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, wishing I was more like the latter, believing deeply in the creative aspect of knowledge as opposed to the strict, acquisitive approach to knowledge espoused by the former.
Since my accident I’ve been slowly, gradually, almost unthinkingly (at first), selling and donating a lot of my stuff. Stuff that I do not use. Stuff that I feel could provide more value to someone else. And stuff I’m not sure how I even got in the first place.
This process began almost as instinct. It has since grown into a thoughtful, intentional shedding of the inessential.
Let this hit you like a brick:
“The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
Throughout my twenties, I’ve frequently assured myself that once certain specified tasks were completed, once certain benchmarks were reached, once certain accomplishments were achieved, I would pursue “the stuff I really want to do.”
I’ve mentioned this quote before, but it’s worth repeating:
“You may delay, but time will not.” -Benjamin Franklin
In other words, you may put off doing the things you really want to do, but in the meantime you just might be randomly killed in a completely unpredictable, unpreventable car accident, which will transform what seemed at the time like sensible, cautious delay into uncorrectable, permanent inaction. So, with that in mind, I’m quitting delay.
Homeostasis is easier than change. In their book, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain:
“The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough.’”
Basically, if you want something different, do the work to make changes. Embrace your agency. This is what I intend to do.