You deserve it

October 16, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

I’m traveling back home after spending an incredibly quiet and stress-free five days on Nantucket.   For those of you who are not familiar, Nantucket, part of Massachusetts, is an island in the Atlantic Ocean.  October is the off-peak season on Nantucket, meaning that the Island is much quieter than it is during the summer.  This week, I was able to experience the perfect storm of quietude. While the entire island was relatively devoid of people because of the season, I was utterly, almost sinfully, able to spend my five days in an especially quiet corner of Nantucket, in a beach house owned by my wife’s family. I was the only person occupying the house. My wife urged me to go, to get away from “everything.”  My co-workers at work were equally generous with their encouragement and support.

I truly did “get away from it all.” The sun and the moon were my only clocks.  I spent my time reading, writing, walking on beaches, shooting photos, eating simple fun food (can of chili, anyone), beach-combing, enjoying the 60 degree daytime high, not shaving, playing the guitar, staring at the horizon, staring at the horizon again, listening to the waves, and watching the seagulls sail by. Although I did quite a bit of reading and writing (which I also do at home), I had long uninterrupted stretches of time in which to do this work, rather fighting for an hour or two here and there.  I had my own desk where I let ideas flow at their own pace.  I adopted a pet horseshoe crab (to the left of my computer), or more precisely, a discarded shell of that ancient species.

I was amazed at how natural it all felt to be so far away from temptations to pay the bills, away from mechanical clocks, and away from other voices.   When I was on the various Nantucket beaches, I was usually the only person on the beach.

This five-day stretch was phenomenal for what it wasn’t: the usual.

Not that I’m complaining of my “normal” routine—it just takes a lot of effort.  My work as a consumer lawyer usually consumes far more than forty hours each week.  I also work hard to be a serious and silly father to my two young daughters; like the practice of law, being a father can’t be done well by merely dabbling in it.  I also try to live up to my wife’s all-too-reasonable expectations of what it is to be a husband.  I try to keep our house in good working order. Like many of you, I also try be stay active in my community in a variety of ways.  I occasionally practice guitar, with the hope that I can play out, like I did in years’ past. I try to keep pace with technology, so that I can put better quality multi-media content on the blog. And, oh yes, there’s this blog, where I am obsessed with trying to keep the readers (including myself) off-balance with a steady diet of iconoclastic observations.

These endeavors (and others) generate dozens of emails every day, as well as more phone calls and conversations than this off-the-charts introvert can digest.  It really does lead to a lot of stress–usually good stress, but too often, over-the-top heart-buzzing unpleasant stress–the kind of stress that reminds me of my mother’s advice to me decades ago.  She worried that just because people could pack many things into their lives, maybe it’s not such a good idea to actually do so, certainly not over the long-haul.  When I first heard her make this comment, I thought she was so obviously off the mark.  After all, life is short, right?

I really hope it doesn’t look like I’m complaining about my life.  I consider my life to be almost distractingly eclectic and charmed, even though it is “stretched out.”  It often feels like this. Can anybody relate?   Anyone with any emotional distance from my life knows that my frustrations (like the frustrations of so of you) are merely the natural consequence striving for that thing my mother warned me about.  Too many of us are pushing too hard to accomplish the modern version of the gold standard for living a life well: We are trying to live multiple lives effortlessly. I’m failing dramatically, of course (and so are YOU!).  Life’s big clock is ticking loudly, and it urges us on. “Someday,” I tell myself, “I might have to cut back on some things . . .

That’s the background, the context for my trip. These are also the sorts of things I blurt out when I tell people that I “deserved” the lavish trip I just took.  I find myself trying to justify an extraordinary opportunity that most people don’t have.

I find it interesting to recall the reactions of others when I told them that I was about to go on this retreat (I started calling it a “retreat,” which brings more of an aura of respectability to the endeavor). Many people found it hard to believe that anyone could really enjoy going somewhere for several days while completely alone.  Many people looked troubled that I wouldn’t have anyone to talk with, even though I told them that was exactly what I wanted.

Once out at the beach house, I discovered that not talking with other people was delightful.  Because I stopped talking with others (because no one else was there), I more readily became deeply immersed in the moment; so many things that I usually failed to notice competed for center stage in my consciousness.  This lack of words often happened when I was alone in a place of stunning beauty—it occurred many times every day. It felt so peaceful, so therapeutic, almost euphoric. But it was also intense and compelling.  It reminded me of a figure drawing class I once took.  Because I’m not much of an artist, drawing was difficult work, but I was almost entirely wordless work.  It surprised me back then that one can work so hard without using any language. That’s what seemed to be going on during my retreat.  I was thinking intensely, but sometimes not using words.  Or that’s what it seemed like to me.

I don’t know if the intensity I experienced was my wordless appreciation of the beauty around me or, rather, my experience of my own experiencing.  It seemed, though, that the gentle calmness I felt was akin to the peace that religious people often claim to experience when they go on religious retreats.  Perhaps it’s just that all of us attribute that same euphoria/intensity to whatever is convenient.  Religious folks attribute it to God and I attribute it something quite a bit less omniscient, something for which I have no label and for which I claim no understanding (“Being more in synch with nature?”  “Meditation?”).

When I was walking or taking photos, I spoke very few words out loud (I was often surprised at the sound of my voice when I did speak).  Further, there were many moments when I wasn’t even thinking in words.  Perhaps I can’t really say that I was thinking, since there were no words to “track the progress” of those thoughts, but it felt like thinking.  It often felt like healing too. Then again, I’m somewhat of a biased observer.  Maybe I was actually delighting in the sensation of mental atrophy!  If so, I can tell you that atrophy is, indeed, delightful.

What would it be like to have weeks or even months of this sort of a “retreat?”  I’d love to try, believe me.  If I could put my family in suspended animation for six months, I’d jump at the opportunity (without that suspended animation, it would distress me to think that I was missing two daughters growing up).   I suspect that there probably is a point where a lot of solitude is actually too much, and that mental atrophying really does become pronounced.  I suspect that after too much silence, one morphs into a know-it-all solipsist and becomes ill-adapted for the critically necessary give-and-take of meaningful social intercourse.  In my experience, many over-isolated people become all too talkative and unwilling to listen to others when they finally have an audience—this is a quality that I have come to recognize in many lonely people.  Then again, maybe I’m thinking of people who are socially isolated because of their own unwillingness to listen, rather than those who chose isolation.

This post is starting to meander.  I did have a real point when I started writing and it’s this.   I’ve already mentioned the people who expressed fear about being alone.  I also heard another common response when I told people about my planned “retreat.”  Those people blurted out, “And you deserve it!”  Several people said it with such gusto that I couldn’t help but want to believe them (but see here!).

I deserve it?   Hmmm

I don’t quite know what to make of this assertion.   Maybe those people (correctly) sensed that I was concerned that I was somehow abdicating responsibility.  They sensed that I was concerned that I was being “sinful.”   I should mention that this trip had an incredibly small financial footprint.  I used a frequent flier benefit and I was allowed to stay at the beach house without cost to me.   I was out of pocket only for bus rides, ferry rides and $50 worth of groceries.  There’s another aspect of responsibility that needs to be considered these days—carbon footprint.  I have no doubt that my “retreat” was irresponsible in that regard.  Even though I used public transportation all the way, my pro rata share of all that burned fuel must be allocated to me.

Putting those concerns aside, did I really “deserve” my retreat, considering that millions of people are starving and really could have used even a dollar or two of the money I spent on myself?  I don’t believe, in this context, that I “deserved” it.   How can anyone seriously claim that he or she “deserved” any luxury while millions starve?  To be honest, though, I must admit that if the opportunity for such a retreat came up again, I’d have a very hard time turning it down.  Confused?  So am I.  At bottom, I don’t know how anyone can confidently say that I (or anyone) “deserved” a luxury.

What does that even mean, to “deserve” something?  That word seems to be a linguistic sword, used by our friends to cut through moral entanglements and send us on our way with a good conscience?  My friends wanted me to enjoy the trip, damn it, and this was no time to be fretting about esoteric moral issues.   Yes, there are people who needed this trip more than I did.  There are single parents out there who never get away from it.  There are people whose jobs involve saving lives, who never get away from it.  There are people who have never had the chance to fly in an airplane, anywhere.   There are kids who will never have a chance to see the ocean.

“You deserve it” is often said as part of an attempt to be kind, but I’m not clear that making such an assertion has any coherent moral basis.

It reminds me of being confronted by a beggar.  Assume that he has his hand out and he is asking you for a bit of money.  He looks like a guy who really is down and out, but you can’t be sure?  He looks a little bit like a guy you saw begging six months ago.  Why doesn’t he get a job?  Maybe he’s disabled.  Maybe they threw him out of the hospital because he was poor, even though he has organic brain function that keeps him from functioning the way you and I want him to function.   Maybe his parents screwed him up.   Maybe he’s a Vietnam vet.  We don’t know any of this, yet he’s got his hand outstretched toward you and, on a cold night, he is asking you for enough money for a meal.  What’s the best place for “your” money?  In his pocket or in your pocket?

Who “deserves” it?  Do you really deserve it?  Again, what meaning does this phrase have, if any?  And you can’t overlook bias.  Your friends who urge that you have a “right” to enjoy a luxury will be ready to urge that “deserve” lots of exotic vacations, and that you “deserve” that big house you live in and that you “deserve” to blow big money on a fancy restaurant meal every few weeks?

“You deserve it” is based on a cocktail of emotions, not on any sort of logic.  Yes, the words come out sounding clear: “You deserve it.”   But I dare you to try to trace the logic, the utilitarian considerations, the comprehensive evidence or even the relevant rules for determining whether anyone ever really “deserves it.”

I believe that Aristotle had it right about rule-based morality.  He said that rule-based systems of conduct could never work in the real world because there is always a need for meta-rules telling us when and how to apply the rules.  And there are meta-meta rules instructing us when and how to apply the meta rules.  No rule-based moral system truly runs itself. “You deserve it” is a most unscientific phrase. It means nothing discernible.  Rather, it seems to be a phrase that expresses camaraderie and power.

We live in a world of fungible dollars and fungible hours. Only when we are willing to make crude and incomplete cartoons of our lives can we be “sure” that we have earned the right to take a luxurious self-soothing time-out from the “moral” world.  Only when we stop looking so closely at the world can we determine that we “deserved” any luxury.

I’ve been writing this post on a long flight from Boston to St. Louis.  So far, my entry back into the world has been gentle and full of pleasant interactions.  I didn’t deserve such a smooth reentry into the real world.  Or is it so simple?

The 19-month old boy sitting next to me on the airplane, an adorable little child, just threw up all over himself.  He’s upset and the entire cabin smells of vomit.  He has a wonderful mother who knew just what to do, however, and how to do it.  Their relationship and interactions are intensely beautiful, despite all of the vomit.  In some of my moods, this incident would have seemed unpleasant, but today it wasn’t a distraction at all.  It was a chance to see a terrific job of parenting.  Is my patient and peaceful reaction to this incident one of the benefits to have time alone to contemplate the universe in a wordless way?  If so, my retreat was powerful medicine, indeed.

There are many ways to get away.  My trip to Nantucket was an especially beautiful way to get away from it all.  I certainly appreciate that.   That said, I think there is something therapeutic about stepping outside of the normal flow of things to reorient yourself.  Nietzsche captured this idea well:

When taking leave is needed.– From what you would know and measure, you must take leave, at least for a time. Only after having left town, you see how high its towers rise above the houses.

–Wanderer and his Shadow, #307

Maybe I needed time to get away, even if I didn’t “deserve” it.  Maybe all of us need it.

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Category: Communication, Meaning of Life, photography, Psychology Cognition, Whimsy, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. I'm glad you had a nice time! 🙂

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Random Ruminations on Retreat: When I first heard of it, I pictured a Dilbertesque scene. Then a song lyric about "a hero who sneezed abruptly seized retreat and reversed it to victory".

    But once you explained it, then it made sense. Getting away. Taking some accumulated mental-health days. Besides recharging your soul (whatever semantic attachment that meme has for you) from depletion, such a get-away is reinvigorating for future challenges. After all, the rewarding yet exhausting task of raising two little girls has a light at the end of the tunnel; the freight train of their adolescence.

    One environmental point to consider whether whatever was consumed was worth it. Your retreat is an intermediate capital investment in your sanity. Well worth it.

    Nice pictures, too.

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