The Straitjacket of Order

Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

To say that I agonize over decisions is an understatement. One way that I cope is with something my friends call The List.

“I got an Apple Watch. Check this out!” A colleague taps the screen and twiddles the “crown” to some unclear end. “Better put it on the list!” she chirps before darting into her class.

“I hear you keep your house pretty cold, but we just got an Eden Pure. It’s pretty efficient, and it might keep you warm without breaking the bank,” a scruffy math teacher says. “Better put it on the list!” he chuckles.

The List (your bated breath of anticipation is palpable) is an instrument I use for non-consumable purchases. All unnecessary items (toiletries, basic food, and the like don’t go on The List) are subject to a 90-day waiting period. Since my English colleague brought the Apple Watch to my attention in September (let’s assume for a moment that I want such a contraption), I’d put it on the list, ponder the enormity of acquiring it at 30-day intervals, and then it would be eligible for purchase in December. If after a month or two I should decide that it’s not for me, off it goes!

Aside from gentle barbs about my (legion) eccentricities, people praise this system as a model of thoughtful consumption and enviable frugality. It does accomplish those things, and I value them. There’s just one problem. The for the list isn’t those laudable goals.

The List exists because making decisions paralyzes me.

There’s a little hyperbole here, but not a lot. The fact is that purchasing anything substantial on a timeline tighter than 90 days causes me to panic: tightened chest, labored breathing, sweaty palms — the works.

A trip to the grocery store is only somewhat less fraught. I make a list, rarely deviate (otherwise cue those stress responses), and once I find a product, a marriage ensues.

I take some small measure of comfort that I’m not alone, but it still strikes me as pretty peculiar. No one else I know has to take deep cleansing breaths in the cereal aisle.

The powers that be in U.S. Peace Corps thought I’d make a good teacher, so they sent me to Malawi in 2011 to spend my days in a community day secondary school to teach (carrying on the colonial enterprise) English to rural children dreaming of something more than subsistence agriculture.

For most any creature, there’s an adjustment period to a new environment. I don’t want to downplay my own struggles and my less-than-best moments. In particular, I had what could be most charitably called a meltdown over an acute deprivation of fruit.

Be that as it may, I took to my new home better than I expected. I found a peace and tranquility in Malawi that I hadn’t known in years.

I found something there: freedom from choice.

Going to a restaurant in the US presents a person with a panoply of choices in establishments and the menus therein. In Malawi, what would I have? Whatever they were serving. At most, the choices for your meal broke down something like this: nsima or (maybe) rice, beans or (maybe) animal protein, and a vegetable according to the season.

What about a trip to the store for some toothpaste?


Whitening? Max Fresh? Total? Sensitive?

Nope. None of that. Just some red-boxed Colgate. Original. Something about cavity protection.

Bread — white or (sometimes) wheat.

You get the point. `

Gone were the Cheesecake Factories with their menus of Biblical proportions. Gone, too, were the big-box stores presenting many multiples of almost everything.

It was perfect.

And, lest U.S. taxpayers should balk, ephemeral.

A caveat here. My situation was one of limited choice rather than material scarcity, which is what characterizes the life for many in Malawi and myriad places besides. My positive experience relies heavily upon the privilege in which I encountered the country. First, though there was only a brand or two of toothpaste, there was never toothpaste. Second, I always had money to buy said products. Last, I was also spared many of the stressors that plague people of any country — housing and healthcare were provided — and if anything really bad ever happened to make the country unstable, out my Peace Corps compatriots and I would go.

I am in no way attempting to romanticize the plight of the poor, but I’m also conscious of the fact that more is not always better and that wisdom about how life might be best lived doesn’t necessarily come minted with a “Made in the West” stamp.

I’d like to say that I grew in some way that allowed me to organically maintain the calm I felt abroad, but when I finished my service and returned to the United States, I found myself back where I started. The always simmering anxieties burbled beneath a (mildly) composed exterior. Desperate to recapture my erstwhile quietude far from the “dark satanic mills” of the West, I erected systems that artificially limited my choices.

For example, I adhere to a schedule that infuriates just about everyone around me but makes my life manageable. What time will I get up tomorrow? Well, the day ends in a “y,” so, 5:30. From that point forward, my day unfolds in a regular and orderly way. Each activity has its place, but god help those who force a deviation.

I’m a dog person largely because my dog is the only other creature on earth as excited and ready for a walk at exactly 6:50am rain or shine as I am, but permit me a cat comparison.

The indoor cat is content lazily sunning himself on the couch (probably its back so as to cause maximum aesthetic disruption), halfheartedly swatting at some hanging do-dad or perched at the window eyeing the flitting sparrows and cardinals imagining himself free and able to pounce with fiendish glee.

That’s me within the confines of a schedule. Perhaps I placidly ponder what it would be like to do something else, but I’m quite content with things as they are.

That same cat occasionally darts for the door filled with hopes of what the great world beyond his walls holds, but then the unfiltered light of day hits his fur and behold: He. Freaks. Out. Freezes — then darts for some dark secure corner.

That’s also me.

Say a friend suggests dinner instead of a movie — two totally pleasant things — mental gymnastics ensue to help me shift gears, and as-often-as-not people throw up their hands in frustration at my inflexibility.

I wish I weren’t like that — brought nearly to tears because someone changes the restaurant at the last minute or the group composition suddenly shifts. You see, I’ve already thought about points of conversation, and I’ve also looked at the menu ahead of time so that I can enjoy the evening. I’ve gotten my anxieties out sometime earlier.

Hence, The List. Hence, a tight schedule where everything has its place. Hence, requiring plans far in advance so that I can mentally prepare. Hence a job that, while in some sense chaotic, varies only within tightly controlled parameters. It starts at exactly 8:42am and chugs forward from there with every second accounted for.

Unfortunately, these attempts to quell anxiety just come off to others as intransigence — the pretentious predilections of a spoiled only child always accustomed to getting his way.

They’re not wrong.

But neither am I. Wound tight as a clock? Yep. But still a ticking one as opposed to pre-Peace Corps Paul who took medicine to function or heaved heavy sobs bewailing and nigh incapacitated by the enormity of life’s daily travails.

How much do I care? I’m not sure.

It seems self-indulgent, even if I can’t help it, to become distressed at a culinary genre switch from Italian to Mexican while Yemeni people have their world blown to pieces before their very eyes.

Bored with peace and stability, with one in five Americans having mental health issues, do I (we) just invent distress as an antidote to humdrum life? Human ingenuity has freed us from the terror of the predator-filled Savannah, so do we compensate by finding boogeymen in the nooks and crannies of civilization?

Barbarian hordes of Central American migrants at our border? Neo-Nazi marches threatening our democracy? Woke snowflakes protesting disliked speech? Muslims? Political correctness? Whatever the side, whatever the persuasion, there’s an issue to get your heart pumping — to glaze your palms with sweat.

Mine just happen to seem especially ridiculous.

And herein lies my hypocrisy. While I encourage people to detach from possessions and simplify their lives, when it comes to letting go of control or order, well then, my white-knuckling persists.

So continues the process of letting go.

Teacher writing about literature, minimalism, food, simplicity, sustainability and education.

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