The Wisdom of Broken Water Heaters

Flooding Aftermath

Our water heater apparently broke sometime in the course of the day yesterday. This lead to water dripping from the laundry closet through the walls and floors somehow and out into the main area. We now have giant fans and dehumidifiers in two areas of the house. The cats are not thrilled. Personally, I'm just tired from lack of sleep and getting upset last night.

But I firmly believe that each situation—no matter how bad—has lessons I can learn from it. I can either choose to wallow in self-pity or I can find those hidden lessons and work to make positive change in my life. In this case, the lessons practically jumped right out at me. Some of these are ideals that I've held for a long time, but there's nothing like a disaster to really re-emphasize them.

First and foremost, all objects are impermanent. They will break in some way eventually. Life will always bring hurricanes, exploding water heaters, fires, and all manner of entropy. Disasters can't be completely avoided. Because of this, things shouldn't be relied upon for emotional stability or self-worth.

Now I know that this sounds self-evident to a lot of you. Hell, it's self-evident to me as well, but coming from a very poor background, it isn't always instinctual for me. It's not where I go first. I have to talk myself back from the mental ledge where Mama will yell at me for breaking something we can't afford to replace. When you're very poor, sometimes the little bit you have gets tied in with your feelings of self-worth. Those plastic souvenir cups from fast food restaurants might not seem important to you, but they were my childhood "collection". Those old comic books might be worth about five cents a piece now, but I had to mow lawns, clean houses, and pick up beer cans to buy them in the first place.

As a logical result of this, we continue to have too much shit in our house. Now, those of you who knew us in our twenties can attest that we have probably a third of the stuff we used to jam into our much smaller apartments, but moving books and knick-knacks off of waterlogged bookshelves really underscores in a tangible way how much farther we need to go. We really need to continue and renew our efforts to reduce and declutter. This should be more of a priority in my life because it honestly feels so freeing every time I go on a household purge. When the stuff is gone, I genuinely feel physically lighter afterwards. I think some part of my brain is constantly fretting about "needing to do something" with all the objects in my house, so getting rid of some of them frees up an ever increasing portion of my brain to actually be here in the moment.

I think it would be helpful for me to put myself in a disaster frame of mind as I work on decluttering. I should really imagine that our house has flooded or caught fire as I sort through things. What would happen if this was taken away from me by an accident or an emergency situation? How replaceable is this? If it were destroyed, would I need to replace it right away? I think that could be a very handy frame of mind for actually getting rid of shit in a serious way.

The final point was a new one for me, and it was a hard one to understand—in part because I came out of poverty. Last night, in the middle of the crisis, I realized I wasn't worried about money. I was more concerned with having the time, energy, and knowledge to handle the situation in the appropriate way. Somewhere along the way while saving aggressively, money ceased to be my biggest concern. My biggest deficits are now in having time and energy to actually live my life. And yeah, as a kid who didn't have much money growing up, that's an awesome feeling, but the deficit is just as real and just as deleterious. And I have way less of an idea of how the fuck to deal with it. I've understood for a while that I sometimes feel or even say that I wish I could throw money at problems to increase my free time. This situation really underscored for me why that is. I need to stop thinking like a poor kid. If a problem can be solved with a reasonable amount of money, I should probably spend that money to free up our time and effort for the things that really matter to us.

And as a corollary to the preceding point, I really need to stop working so hard. I go through life with a chip on my shoulder, always feeling like I have to prove myself. When I came to college, I felt really out of place. I felt like I had to prove that, even though I didn't have the opportunities in high school that my classmates from more affluent school districts did, I still belonged at a major university. When I graduated, I felt like I had to prove that liberal arts majors aren't worthless to everyone I met. In my day job as a computer programmer, I make it a point to work harder and longer than my peers because I don't want anyone to have a reason to take away this job that I love because I don't have the right words on a piece of paper written up with fancy script. I constantly have so much vacation leave that I'm at the cap of how much they'll let me retain. I don't need to be working this hard. I don't want to be working this hard. I want to be giving my hobbies, my passions, and my personal mission a sustainable effort, and I'm tired of worrying that by not killing myself with heroic effort that I'm somehow putting everything at risk.

And this, ladies, gentlemen, and folks who identify as neither, is the truly insidious nature of consumer/capitalist culture. Life isn't a competition, and I'm not a competitive person. When I buy into the ideal of working outside of work, accumulating things, scheduling my life, and trying to prove that I'm somehow more worthwhile than my fellow humans, I'm doing things that are very foreign to me. I am not a business mogul. I'm not a politician, and I'm most decidedly not just a resource on someone's Gantt chart. I am a philosopher, a tinkerer, a poet, and a priestess; and the values, milestones, and chains that external systems might try to put on me aren't important or meaningful to me.

So yeah…Message received, universe. Message received.