It is December, and though Black Friday has luckily come and gone, people are still jostling each other on the streets trying to buy Christmas gifts, Christmas ornaments and Christmas food, before it’s all too late and the New Year leaves them with sour resolutions impossible to uphold.
Christmas isn’t the only time when we work ourselves to the bone to be able to afford to buy things, of course. It’s just that the stampede of Christmas shopping makes for such adequate imagery of a society that always craves more. For despite claims that we are now all about hygge, or minimalism, or tidying up, these kinds of lifestyles also work through consumption – through books, movies, talks and the like, we are constantly trying to buy our way to improvement. The consumerism is simply hidden behind class – we can deride the mass of Black Friday-goers if we can disguise our own cravings with aesthetically pleasing simplicity and a discourse of good conscience, Kinfolk style.
It’s not rocket science anymore, but constantly craving more is probably bad for the planet and also for our emotional well-being. Unfortunately, we live in a society whose in-built economics not only encourage us to crave more, but actually require us to do so; our country’s Gross Domestic Product has to grow between 2-3% every year in order for our economic system to function. This striving towards growth has become so entrenched in our self-understanding that we have each become tiny satellites of insatiable hunger, mirroring the insatiable hunger of grand-scale capitalism on an individual level. This isn’t only the case for consuming material goods, but also for the way we view ourselves – as self-realization projects that need constant improvement and constant stimulation in order to ensure continual growth.
Luckily, I still know a few people (aside from annoyingly saintly Svend Brinkmann) who don’t live in this way. My grandparents were born just before WWII and grew up in small-town Denmark where they still live. Though their comfortable life has, in large part, been determined by the rise in middle-class affluence during the postwar era, they were still formed by a time where constant acquisition, improvement and yearning was not apart of our DNA.
I visit my grandparents for a few days every summer, where I languish the time away reading books, playing Scrabble, and slipping into their everyday routine. This routine has taught me a few things about different ways of going through life, and here they are, boiled down into an easily digestible and highly reductionist list:
1) Don’t buy new things.
My grandparents still have the same dining room furniture they had when they set up house 60 years ago, most of it inherited from previous generations. I once asked my grandfather, tentatively, whether they had ever thought about redecorating. He looked at me puzzled and said “but why?” Though my grandparents have heard of IKEA, and also buy their new furniture from there, they see no reason to replace old with new just because fashion has changed.
2) Take care of the things you have.
The reason that my grandparents still have all the same things that they purchased or inherited 60 years is ago is also because they take care of them. I once inherited a backpack and a bicycle from my grandmother, who had had them for around 25 years. After 5 years in my care, the backpack was tattered and zipless, and the bike was a rusty, creaking heap. My conclusion: it is worth spending a few moments each day, week and month to take care of your things. Put them into cupboards and drawers. Fold them neatly. Dust them off. Oil the hinges. Then you might not need something new for a very long time.
3) Live by routines.
My grandparents have the same porridge for breakfast every day, and even have a fixed amount of nuts each that they put on top of it (8 almonds and 4 walnut kernels, if you’re interested). They also have specific times for the many coffee and tea breaks that they take together during their day. These routines divide up the day into neat segments with something to look forward to, and ensure that they don’t need to make choices about things they don’t care about (perhaps like breakfast), but also things that they do care about (like spending time together). Living by routines in this fashion means being less likely to be tempted by a society that constantly requires you to make the choice to buy/not to buy or to do/not to do. If you have your routines and priorities in order, you will know what is important.
4) Divide work and private life.
When my grandfather was still working, and my grandmother was keeping their house, they would take a 15-minute break together every day at around 10. Then my grandfather would work, and my grandmother would probably cook, clean and take care of the children until he came home to relax with the family. The only person not getting an evening break was, of course, also my grandmother whose job was the private home. Now, with two parents working jobs as the norm, we would hope that this would mean more free time away from work for each parent. Yet the advent of the computer and the smartphone means that, instead, we simply bring our work with us home. I subscribe to my grandparents’ way of doing things (minus the fixed gender roles): Having a separate time and place for work and for a personal life. It compartmentalizes your life in a way so you know when you need to deal with which issues (and when you just need to kick back and relax with a good book).
5) Stick together.
My grandparents recently celebrated their diamond anniversary – 60 years in each other’s company. In a society constantly telling you that you can do better, that you must constantly be in a situation allowing full self-realization, and that you don’t need to bother with the negative things in life, sticking together with your partner is probably the biggest challenge of all! Of course, if monogamy is not your thing, this doesn’t need to be a problem. But when I see how much joy my grandparents have in sharing their everyday life with each other, probably because they spent 60 years going through good and bad times together, it makes me want to try harder, and not discard someone just because they aren’t lifting me up to my own full potential at any given time.
In conclusion: Look back in time in order to resist the present and face the future!
All photos by the author, from her grandparents’ summer house.