What, you were expecting to see a chocolate croissant? That puppy’s long gone…
This afternoon I’m sitting at Capital City Cheesecake, winding down my workday week by doing some writing and enjoying one of my favorite treats: a chocolate croissant. The chocolate croissants here are large and full of chocolate and yummy, and as I savored every bite of mine, I paid attention to its yumminess. I briefly thought about its flaky crust as I brushed the extra crumbs off my shirt and computer, but mostly my thoughts were limited to how yummy it was. Did I mention that it was yummy?
Now that I think about it, here are some of the things I didn’t think about when I ate my chocolate croissant: where it came from, what ingredients were in it, or how long it might have been sitting there. I don’t even know what bakery it came from. I didn’t think about what country the cacao beans came from, and I didn’t think about the farm workers who were involved in the harvesting process. I didn’t think about how the beans were fermented or dried. (In fact, I didn’t even know that cacao beans were fermented and dried until I did a web search on it.) I didn’t think about whether they used cacao or cocoa powder to make the croissant.
I didn’t think about any of those things because that is one of the blessings of modern life: the miracle of a system that affords the more fortunate among us to live a lifestyle abundant beyond the wildest dreams of medieval kings.
Why I am thinking about this at all at this moment? Because I’m trying to figure out how to rewrite the section in my book that describes my (re-)discovery of the value of thoughtlessness. I know — my 1,000 things projects were based on the value of being thoughtful about the process. So it may sound like a total contradiction, but the time and effort I spent being thoughtful about getting rid of thousands of my things also renewed my appreciation for the value of being thoughtless.
In fact, being thoughtless is not just valuable in our society — it’s absolutely essential.
Imagine if I did have to think about where my chocolate croissant came from — if I had to think about the myriad of steps it took to bring that chocolate croissant to my mouth — er, into being. Imagine if I had to make my own chocolate croissant — well, that would never happen. But I didn’t have to think about any of that; in reality, being obliviously thoughtless about my chocolate croissant is what enables me to enjoy it, which is true for that matter for most everything else I consume.
Of course, on some level this is not anything new: the division of labor which brought my chocolate croissant to me has been a defining feature of human societies for centuries, millennia really. So what’s different in our society?
I think it’s this: modern society has dangerously diminished — swamped, overwhelmed, overrun, you name it — our capacities to be thoughtful about our consumption and our lives. I felt overwhelmed just listing a few of the ways I’m not thoughtful about a single chocolate croissant, and that’s just one little thing. (Big for a croissant, but small in the larger scheme of things.) Our lives are filled to overflowing with a myriad of things that are just as wondrously complex if we stopped to think about it; but fortunately we don’t have to, because if we did, it would be overwhelming.
How did this happen? I think it’s the result of affluence and abundance, the complexity and sheer volume of it, along with a big boost from our long-standing love affair with labor-saving devices, which have captivated American life since the Industrial Revolution began over a half of a century ago. The key here is that these devices don’t just save us time and effort; they also reduce or eliminate the thought involved in using them — everything from home appliances to prepared foods to electronics to chocolate croissants, not to mention the computer I’m using to write this, perhaps the most significant labor-saving device ever invented.
This sheer abundance of things doesn’t just encourage thoughtlessness about acquiring things; it demands it. As a result, thoughtlessness becomes the mechanism which causes things to accumulate in our lives until we have far more than we need. Meanwhile, our consumption patterns have remained driven by habits formed by scarcity. The result is that it’s all too easy for us to keep on accumulating things until excess gets in the way of how we want to live and what we want to be. In other words, thoughtlessness is valuable to a point, but we passed that point a long time. Now it’s a two-edged sword; we can’t do without it, but at the same time we have to do something about it.
Here’s what I’m doing about it:
1) Appreciate the value of thoughtlessness. I recognize that being thoughtless is essential, and I can’t do without it. So the question becomes, how can I be more thoughtful about what I consume and bring into my life? How can I recover and regain my atrophied capacities for thoughtfulness without wearing myself out in the process? For me, this inexorably leads to:
2) Remain calm and keep paring. Keep on removing unneeded things from my life, and remain very vigilant about what I bring into my life in both the material and non-material realms. I may reach a point where I don’t need to keep removing things, but I’m not there yet.
3) Appreciate what I do have in my life. Slowly but surely, I’m learning how to do this in practice with more and more things in my life. This afternoon, I focused my appreciation on a chocolate croissant. I could have a chocolate croissant every day if I wanted to; my budget, diet, and waistline can all afford it. But I wouldn’t appreciate these chocolate croissants if I treated them as routine entitlements. Instead, I treat my chocolate croissants as treats: something to be had once a week or so, something to look forward to, something made a little more precious by making them a little more rare. That way, I can enjoy them more for the miraculous treats that they are. And did I mention that they were yummy?