Debt, Instant Gratification and Wishful Thinking are habits you can’t afford to keep in a Recession
In the past four months, everything that we used to take for granted has vanished or been severely restricted because of the Coronavirus.
Not being able to go to work and facing impending business closure is bad enough – the sudden loss of our daily routines that give shape, meaning and purpose to our lives is also very disconcerting.
We can’t dine out, go to a concert, theatre and the gym. Vacationing is out of the question, so is retail therapy. Major sporting events like Wimbledon and the Olympics have been cancelled. We can’t celebrate, party or enjoy a night out with friends. The list of activities that are off limits because of social distancing and lockdown, goes on and on.
Our world has shrunk so drastically overnight that it feels like we are in prison, stripped of everything except the basic necessities!
Though we are not in a physical prison, why is such a life – stripped of activity and freedom of movement – so painful?
After all, if we live in a jungle or a remote island in the middle of nowhere, our lives would have been just as narrow and restrictive.
This struck me after I watched a documentary about the Sea Gypsies, a distinct ethnic group of sea nomads living in the coastal regions and remote islands of India, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Entire families of Sea Gypsies live on houseboats and in self-made wooden homes perched above the water on stilts.
Though exposed to the modern world, they have held fast to their traditions. Boys and men are taught to fish and build boats from an early age. Excellent swimmers and divers, they would go deep sea fishing to bring home the day’s catch for their families and for sale at the nearest town. The women would spend their days cooking and caring for the children. The modest income that they earn is just enough to pay for basic necessities – clothes, fuel, boat engines, repairs, a stove for cooking – and not much else.
I wonder – have any of the Sea Gypsies ever felt bored? Have they ever been drawn to the bright lights of the city where there’s more money to be made, more excitement, more entertainment and more freedom? That their distinct culture is still alive today, is testimony that they have not embraced these values entirely.
Comparing my life with theirs, I’m much better off, materially and physically. They have no nationality or passport, whereas I’m a citizen of a peaceful and developed country. I live in a comfortable apartment with air-conditioning and piped water. My fridge stores all types of foods. There are no natural hazards hunting for fish at the supermarket!
And yet, the Sea Gypsies have something that I don’t have – contentment with having ‘Just Enough’ and the lightness of spirit that comes from living one day at a time.
Like the Masai, the Amazonian Indians and the Inuit, these people are not only self-sufficient, but have been thriving in the harshest of environments for centuries.
Urbanites like us could never imagine a life devoid of comfort and busyness. We’ve also lost the ability to live one day at a time because we’ve been socialised into chasing dreams and goals for a promised future of abundance and happiness.
As a result, our lives have become complicated. There are many competing agendas inside our headspace – meetings to attend, people to impress, projects to complete, deals to close. Pursuing wealth, success, achievement and significance, we are hostage to our ambitions, dreams and to-do lists. We are in fact, living in a metaphorical prison – exchanging our freedom for the following ‘handcuffs’:
- Debt: Even if we hate our jobs, we can’t walk away because we are leveraged to the hilt, taking on more debt than we can afford to pay. “Fake it till you make it!” we tell ourselves, and start borrowing for the future. Except that now, that promised golden future is in jeopardy!
- Instant Gratification: We want it all – Now! Why postpone the pleasures of owning expensive real estate, going to fancy restaurants and luxury travel? Why save money slowly and conservatively when we can get more from get-rich-quick schemes? Instant Gratification keeps us on the hamster’s wheel, weighed down by too much stuff and debt. And when our get-rich-quick plans tank (as they often do) we’re left with nothing but shame and regrets.
- Wishful Thinking: Our emotions rise and fall with the the stock market. We forget that people have killed themselves during the 1930s Great Depression market crash. Yet we still put our financial well-being at the mercy of bulls and bears. The stock market has become a lot more volatile and unpredictable. Would you put all your faith in a faceless black box, expecting it to spit out money all the time, no matter what happens? Sadly, many people still do, and they fall apart when they lose their shirts.
As long as we have our jobs and the economy is humming, these handcuffs make us feel that the party will go on. But right now, there’s no guarantee that life will be back to normal after the coronavirus outbreak. The economic fallout is expected to lead to another Great Depression.
If so, can we find the courage to unlock our handcuffs to choose a life that is Less instead of More – and be happy about it?
“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” – Warren Buffett
The tide of Covid-19 has revealed the awful truth: that all of us have been swimming naked for the past 70 plus years. We, the post-World War 2 generation have bought the narrative that “Growth will always be there. You can be anything, own anything and get anything you want!”
Our expectations, desires and dreams have far outstripped our ability and resources to achieve them. While the top 1 percent of the wealthiest people in the world are insulated from the fallout, the rest of us have to face the fact this narrative no longer works.
Covid-19 has shown just how vulnerable we are, looking outwards to have our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs met. Now that the tide is out and threats have grown even bigger, our only protection is to draw upon our inner resilience and adapt to change.
We have to turn the corner and start constructing a fresh narrative. Put our old ambitious selves behind. Accept the pain of loss and start over again. Let anger, fear and disappointment pass.
Hunker down and focus on a simpler life. A life that may be hard yet beautifully uncomplicated and unspectacular.
Living one day at a time – like a Sea Gypsy.