I wonder if I could just go and sell my condo tomorrow. Or my dream house that I just bought. My cars and my king sized bed? I wonder how much courage it would take for me to empty out my entire house of everything, barring three sets of clean clothes, a pair of shoes, my toothbrush and a soap.
But what is this absolute sense of fear that overcomes me at the very thought of letting go? When did these possessions stop being mere commodities and start to identify my entire existence? An existence for which I will be spending the next 30 years of my life in debt.
My work begins at 7 am every day and I put in extra hours in the hope of bringing my house mortgage down from 25 years to 20 years. I’m hoping to retire five years sooner than I have to, so maybe in my old age, I can actually live in the house I am working so hard for today. Sure, my children would have grown, the elders in my family would have passed on. But the bills are going nowhere, so I better forget all else and work.
“We lived just like everyone else, almost all of our lives. We worked continuously to be able to pay our bills continuously. We used to own and operate two hotels in Montana. I also ran a painting business with several employees.”
Meet Kirk and Yvette Slack. A typical North American middle class couple, perfectly moulded by societal norms which says it is O.K. to struggle day in and day out to be able to afford the luxuries of life. Subconsciously taught all their lives to defy their own nature, stay up and away from family to earn enough for that very family, to live in that perfect house, drive that perfect car and have that perfect life. And they did. Owning a running multiple hotels, they were successful in building their perfect life as defined by society.
The Slacks still live in the perfect house, leading the perfect life. Only, the definition of ‘perfect’ has changed for them.
“We have become a spoiled stressed out civilization that knows all too well how to consume. But one thing I have learned for sure is that it does not take a big fancy house and a new car to make you happy.”
Having lived a life of luxury, one day, just like that, the Slacks did it. In May, 2005 they sold their hotels and everything else they owned and decided to start life all over again. They went out and bought a piece of land they could afford and built their home from scratch.
“I was forty three years old and for the first time in my life we were totally debt free. Not that we had a lot of money but we had learned to live within our means. Life became a lot easier now; no rent, no car payments, no credit card bills. We were finally free.”
Out from the front door of the cabin that Kirk and his wife Yvette built, is a mile or two of untouched wilderness. “I head out every morning with a cup of coffee and my dog Missy to walk amongst the trees. You find an occasional arrow head where the Native Americans walked a world before, and somehow you can’t help but feeling like you are on the right trail.”
For any average North American couple, it would seem bizarre to just give it all up. Even with all the lifelong stresses that come with it, debts are a perfectly acceptable part of our culture. Why? Why are our governments and our banks not telling us to live within our means? To struggle most of our lives, paying off mortgages and other colossal bills, then teach our kids to do the same, so then they pass it on to theirs: something huge seems to be amiss in this cycle. What has happened to our society, where 79% of our senior citizens have to work well into their old age, all because they have zero savings to retire upon? According to The Canadian Payroll Association, half of Canadians live paycheck to paycheck, and a quarter of them are unable to come up with even a month of emergency funds.
On an average, students in North America start off with approximately $75,000 – $100,000 in student debt at the time of graduation. Then starts the job and home search. By the time they are able to save up some kind of down payment to buy even the most basic condos, home and condo prices have only gone up. As tuition fees increase all across North America and students graduate with more debt, many divert funds towards debt repayment instead of saving for a down payment. In case of not being able to find the right job immediately after graduating from college, saving towards that magical number gets even harder. All this is putting today’s youth under incredible amounts of pressure on how to tap into the housing market. And yet, all this is somehow acceptable to us, and the 'done thing'.
To unlearn what one has been taught by one’s family since birth, by the school, by society, by advertising agencies and big credit card companies is a huge step forward, which few would be willing or even desiring to do. To say no to more debt, to more credit lines, to bigger cars, to bigger houses, to everything that is a standard measure of the average North American person’s material success. We have become too scared a society, happy at being chained to our debts for the rest of our lives rather than having the courage to live within our means and going against what society expects from us.
Breaking the chains
The Slacks, after selling off everything they owned, found a small piece of land for themselves to build a home from scratch, brick by brick that they could finally call their own. Not a dime owed to the bank, not a care in the world on how to pay off installments for the rest of their lives. In spite of all the challenges that came with it, they went ahead because they believed it would get them freedom in the real sense.
“It was hard work living off grid. We were like homesteaders. Last year, for a while all we had was an outdoor shower and a generator for electricity. The days can be long in the mountains. The closest house is about a mile away and we are surrounded by woods. Not a sound, but the wind and the birds. I hooked up a television antenna and we get a couple of channels. It's kind of strange when you are out here in the nature. The world seems just fine until you turn on the news! This lifestyle of ours may not be for everyone, and some would laugh at such a life,” says Kirk. “The hardest thing I guess is family and friends thinking that you might be a little strange because you don't agree with main stream society. That is probably the toughest part about it.”
And yet the Slacks were prepared to take responsibility and define their own lives. They found within them, the courage to not be enslaved by what society tells you, to not become bonded to the material things of life. First world problems, as many call these.
“We have become a pretty soft society, I think it is good to rough it every now and then. Kind of brings you down to earth and puts things into prospective.”
There is hard work in both the lifestyles that the Slacks have lead. But when weighted, the hard work that comes with leading the latter is the kind of hard work that gives them a hundred percent satisfaction at the end of the day. “We have never planned on being hermits and still do not consider ourselves to be. We have just learned how to lead a less complicated life. We try to live as simple of a life as possible. Take no more than you need, be considerate and live an honest life. I know this may seem strange to some but living within your means buys you freedom. It also lets you relax a little.”
To have finally been able to step away from the rat race, Kirk, for the first time understood what really drives him. He understood, that it is in each and every one of us, to do our bit to give back to the society. An incident of a woman who had her children taken away for testing positive for THC and several interviews with hemp and marijuana activists later, Kirk took another bold step of his life. He is now devoting his time to fight for the cause and has been collecting interviews for two years for a documentary he is working on about hemp and medical marijuana. He devotes his time now to build positive awareness through his documentaries.
“I just want everyone to know that you don't have to follow everyone else. That it is O.K. to do your own thing. You only live once and as long as you are not hurting anyone else you should live life the way you want to....”
Kirk concludes our conversation with a quote he deeply believes in: “To be well adjusted to a sick society is not necessarily a sign of a healthy mind"
Would I ever be as courageous as the Slacks to say NO to enter this mindless rat race? Would I ever be able to stand out of this factory of ours that is churning out youth year after year, rushing to get that job that I may not even care about? Would I be able to unlearn all that I have learnt and find happiness in the simpler things of life? And say it’s ok to let go of that big dream that was forced down my mind from even before I was born. If only I can muster up the courage to sell my condo. And my dream house that I just bought. My cars and my king sized bed. And empty out my entire house of everything, barring three sets of clean clothes, a pair of shoes, toothbrush and a soap.
Oh and my books.
The Slacks chose to do something heroic by stepping away from their materially comfortable yet burdened life. It takes an insane amount of strength to break away from an ego fueled by the haves of our society. It takes a lot of strength to say no to greed. To say no to more money than what is required, to say no to more house than is necessary, to say no to more power.
It takes strength to actually want less in our society that only pushes you to have more.
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