I don’t eat before 3pm. It’s a strategy called “intermittent fasting,” and I do it every day.
There are a lot of reasons for intermittent fasting (many relating to body composition and hormone normalization), but for me, as an insulin-dependent diabetic, it also results in fantastic blood sugar stability. I don’t have to figure out how what I eat will affect my blood sugar because I’m not eating. And, as a bonus, not stopping to eat allows me to work through the most productive part of my day without being distracted.
But there’s one other reason I fast, and one other reason I like doing it.
It gives me the opportunity to make a difficult and unpopular choice.
The problem is choice
Humans — and Americans in particular — just won’t shut the fuck up about choice. Give us more options! More channels! More colors! More open hours and more variety of inventory! Give us more service levels, more ways to connect! And we’ll get bitchy about it, too. It’s our right to have choice! Don’t you dare try and take our choice away! This is why Wal-Mart thrives. It’s hard to resist a store that has everything, for cheap, and is always open.
We devour choices. We want more, and more, and more, and more. If we can’t currently do or have something, it only increases our desire to do or have it.
And so, responding to both market demand and their own sense of wanting more choices, people innovate. They create something new, crack a code, solve a mystery… and once they’ve solved it, that becomes one more choice that’s available to everyone.
You didn’t used to be able to split atoms to create electric power. Now you can.
You didn’t used to be able to get in touch with anyone, anywhere, anytime and from anywhere, for dirt cheap. Now you can.
You didn’t used to be able to sit on the couch and be entertained nonstop, for days and weeks on end, while pizza was delivered right to your door. You didn’t used to be able to get so much great-tasting (but nutritionally deadly) food for so cheap, so fast. You didn’t used to be able to conduct your life without any physical exertion.
But now you can.
We’ve got all the choice in the world nowadays, and the buffet of choices available to us is only expanding.
We can choose whatever we want, whenever we want it.
And we’re choosing such stupid, stupid shit.
Dig your own grave
You’re poor. You have zero prospects. You’re having trouble finding enough money to survive, literally. Your kids are starving. Maybe your spouse has medical issues you can’t afford to treat.
And some guy in a red suit (who may or may not be George Burns) comes up to you and says, “Okay. I’ll give you more than enough money to be set forever. All you need to do is to use a hatchet to cut off one of your fingers.”
Maybe you take it. Maybe you don’t. If you decline the offer, you’re taking the risk that your whole family will die in the gutter. If you accept it, you’re going to have to do something extraordinarily unpleasant.
But the mental fuckery is where this scenario really hurts.
If you take the offer, as you’re wielding the hatchet, you’ll be wondering if there was another way out. Could you have found a job? Could you have gotten an inheritance? Could you have written a blockbuster book while you were homeless, like J.K. Rowling did?
But if you decline the offer, if your kids start to get sick, you’ll wonder if you should have taken it. How bad could it have been? One quick strike and it’s over, and then you’re set forever. You might feel guilty, like you chose your own comfort over them. You’ll feel selfish, and cowardly.
Ironically, the only scenario where there’s no regret and no real downside is to have not been given the choice at all.
Today, tempting choices are everywhere. Some improve our lives, but many are slowly killing us. And sometimes we’ll wish that we’d never been given the option.
It was a lot easier to exercise when there was no choice, when you had to walk from one place to another, hunt the deer, build your house, split the wood for the fire. Now, you can choose to do none of that, and you can eat every meal at McDonald’s for dirt cheap.
It was a lot easier to get kids to read when there were no video games or TV.
It was a lot easier to experience quiet and calm when you couldn’t be called anywhere 24/7, when you couldn’t pull your phone out of your pocket five times every hour to check email or Twitter or Facebook.
It was a lot easier to disappear for a while when it was still possible to get lost.
Maybe sometimes, when your phone is ringing over and over, when the traffic is at its worst, when you feel like a video zombie and your kids won’t stop bothering you about the latest fad that seems to be advertised around the clock, maybe in a few of those moments you kind of wish you’d lived back in the “good old days” that your grandparents are always pining for.
But really, we could still do things the hard way — the “good old days” way — even now.
We could raise our own livestock and grow our own plants. We could live without TV or any other kind of screen. We could eschew all cellular phones. We could even be Amish, and not even use electricity or drive cars.
But we’d have to choose to do it. We’d have to know what was available in terms of convenience and pleasure and hedonism and instant gratification… and we’d have to turn our backs on it, willfully and deliberately. And that’s very, very hard.
Now: Am I saying we should be Amish, that the modern world is bad and evil? Not at all.
I have a smartphone and an iPad. I wouldn’t be alive without the healthcare advances that make my diabetes a mere inconvenience. Sometimes I check my email too often, but I’m still glad to have it, to have the internet at my fingers.
But there has to be a line somewhere, and nobody knows where it is.
My generation is the first to have a lower standard of living than our parents’, because we spend so much more than we make. My kids’ generation is the first that’s expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents’, because they eat like hell and don’t move much. Most people don’t enjoy what they do all day. Depression is high. Alienation is high. Health is low. All because of things we’re choosing to do — things we never had the option to do until only recently.
It’s as if someone handed us a gun and said, “Use this if you’d like to take away your pain.”
But we didn’t realize it was a gun. We thought it was ice cream.
Humans are good at persistent curiosity. Give us enough time, and we’ll figure out how to do almost anything.
Not that long ago, the idea of human flight was ridiculous. Unthinkable. But people kept at it, and today you can get from New York to London in an afternoon, while being served pretzels and charged excessive baggage fees.
It wasn’t that long ago that we learned DNA even existed, but once we did, it took no time to start moving things around to create disease-resistant crops and smart bacteria that would do our bidding. You can even have your pets cloned. Got a great dog and want to have him forever? You can. You just have to start over after each lifetime ends… unless you’d like to have two of him at once, which I suppose you could do too.
Today, billions of dollars are going into figuring out how to interface electronic circuits with human brains. Ostensibly it’s about solving medical issues, like helping paralyzed people walk, but you know the commercial sector sees the promise there, too. What if you could operate your TV or your computer with your mind? What if you could drive a car truly hands-free? What if you could call Frank simply by thinking at him?
I figure teleportation is right around the corner. Pretty soon everywhere will be just a few steps away. Going from New York to London will take seconds. It’ll be awesome. We’ll be able to attend every event and will never be able to back out. So what if your boss’s daughter’s bridal shower is at the same time as your kid’s Christmas play? Just pop over for ten minutes. And if the office needs you for a half hour in the middle of your honeymoon, no big deal, because it’s so easy.
I don’t want to have some of these options.
I like that I have the best reason of all (“It’s not possible”) for not doing certain things I don’t want to do. I like that I won’t have to decide whether to accept some Faustian bargains because they can’t currently be made.
Keep my avenues closed. Restrict my options. Tell me what to do. It’s cool to be forced to do something, at a certain point.
But Pandora’s Xbox can’t be closed once it’s open. Once a choice is out there, it’s out there. Nobody’s going to deny you that option. Except for you.
We as a culture seem to say, “We can do that? Awesome! Add it to my inventory of options. Choice is good.”
But it’s time to stop being choice whores. It’s time to stop doing things just because we can.
For a while there, Burger King was giving out free cinnamon rolls with every order. It’s as if they were trying to fatten up their customers. Like they were being instructed by their alien overlords to get us ready for a bloody harvest.
Most people took the cinnamon rolls and ate them. And why not? They were free. They smelled and tasted good. The fact that it was an unwise choice didn’t cross most people’s minds.
But it can cross yours.
You can look at something that’s available, and free, and easy, and enticing, and decide to let it go if it doesn’t suit you. You can opt out. People will think you’re nuts if you do this. “But they’re free,” they’ll will say, as if that’s all that matters.
It’s not all that matters. We need to stop living by default and start paying some fucking attention.
Start to look for things that are freely and easily available to you right now, but that you might do better without.
Maybe you check your smartphone too much but you don’t want to get rid of it. So, turn off the 3G or 4G connectivity and use it only when you’re near a wi-fi signal. Now… it’ll be tempting to cheat. You could easily turn it back on and surf Facebook from the beach, and it wouldn’t cost you a cent. But resist the urge.
There are programs that will block internet access from your computer for whatever time periods you set. If you spend too much time online, get one and use it. The only way to break through and get your access back would be to re-boot… and you could, and that would let you IM with your buddy in Seattle about nothing and Tweet about that sandwich you just ate. But don’t. Have some restraint.
Get rid of those fucking donuts and cigarettes. They’re free to keep, but just because something is available doesn’t mean you should say yes to it.
You’ve got nonstop entertainment on TV, but if your family dynamic is suffering, turn it off.
You paid for that giant plate of onion rings, but if you’re full, stop.
There’s an elevator in your building, but if you’re trying to get into better shape, don’t use it.
You’re opting out of something that has been offered to you when you do these things, and people will think it’s nuts.
But it’s there! they’ll say. But it’s free!
One day, someone’s going to offer free arsenic with the Quarter Pounder meal and everyone’s going to eat it because hey, it’s free.
It’s time we stop acting like we need to “get our money’s worth” from everything, everywhere, all the time.
You’re being controlled.
Don’t worry; it’s human nature. We’re social animals, and conformity is baked into our cores, so don’t go feeling bad about being a puppet sometimes… but yeah, it’s true. Other people’s opinions and arguments are controlling some of what you do, say, and think.
You just need to figure out which parts they are. And that involves a bit of suffering.
Choosing to do something unpleasant is the only way to be sure you’re making a choice that is truly your own. Easy, pleasurable choices aren’t like that. Choices that feel good are the ones you can easily fall into, be funneled into, or be brainwashed into.
But the ugly decisions are all you.
Ever wonder why monks spend weeks at a time doing nothing but meditating or chanting?
Ever wonder why anyone would take a vow of silence?
Ever wonder why the minimalist movement is so strong today?
Ever wonder why people go off on vision quests, walkabouts, or become hermits who live in the woods?
Those are all choices to do something difficult and uncomfortable. They are all choices that go against the way the “normal” world operates, creating friction. They’re a way of saying, “Fuck you, world. I’m not going to participate in your bullshit.”
Political prisoners sometimes go on hunger strikes. To a lot of people, this looks dumb. Nobody is going to care if they starve themselves. But it’s not about anyone else caring. It’s about showing themselves that they can’t be owned. It’s Kunta Kinte refusing to say his name was Toby.
Personally, I fast every day because I’d rather eat Pop Tarts, and because Kellogg’s would rather I eat Pop Tarts. Kellogg’s has a lot of commercials showing me how great Pop Tarts are. They also show my kids how great they are. My kids watch those ads and ask for Pop Tarts.
I fast every day because I’d rather eat Pop Tarts, and because Kellogg’s would rather I eat Pop Tarts. And fuck Kellogg’s.
I fast every day because I choose to.
It’s my choice to make, and mine alone.
Look at how you’re living. Ask yourself if it could be better. Ask yourself if there are any voluntary but dumb things that are getting in between you and what you want, in between how you are and how you want to be.
Look at everything around you — what you do, how you think, what you consume, how you respond — as if it were a room filled with objects. Ask yourself if the room is too crowded. Ask yourself if you can move around, or if you feel walled in. Ask yourself if, in this room, you feel like you can breathe.
Your choices filled that room.
How many were truly your choices, and how many were made by default? Did you get a smartphone because “why not”? Did you take the cable TV package upgrade because it was only ten dollars more? Do you Supersize It as a knee-jerk reaction? Do you want that new gadget because you actually need and will use it, or because it’s “the newest whiz-bang version”? (You really need to ask this one if you had an iPad 2 and bought the new iPad to replace it.)
Are you going out tonight because others are going, and you figure “what the hell”?
Do you ever find yourself watching a TV show simply because you never turned off the TV when the previous show ended?
Do you take the cinnamon rolls because they’re free, or finish your huge meal because you paid for it and don’t want to “waste” it?
Now, at this point, I want to clarify something:
Eat the fucking rolls if you want. Seriously. Just don’t do it because they’re free. Do it because you want them.
Check your cell phone all the time if the urge strikes you. But don’t do it out of nervous habit, like a smoker twiddling his thumbs while waiting for a smoke break.
Make your own decisions, and know what you’re getting when you make them.
And if your decision-making muscle is weak, if you’re more often than not at the whim of the normal and the accepted? Then try some self denial, to build that muscle.
- Desire something and don’t buy it.
- Stop checking your email.
- Put yourself on a budget — not to save money, but to see what it feels like.
- Fast, and learn to appreciate hunger. (And learn that it won’t kill you.)
- Experiment with sleep.
- Take a sabbatical.
- Take an ice-cold shower.
- Turn off your TV.
- Take an internet holiday.
- Go somewhere remote and live there for a while, totally unplugged.
- Do something that hurts, something that pushes you to your edge.
Not everything that is offered to you is something that you should accept. Get used to sitting in front of life’s buffet, picking and consciously choosing only the best of all that’s offered.
If you don’t, if you aren’t careful, you’ll be like diners at a Golden Corral, stuffing yourself with everything until you waddle out sick and disgusted.
Get used to being offered something, and saying no to it.
The world, more and more and more and more, is conspiring to give you exactly what you want.
Do something that sucks.