The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Last week I travelled to England to sort out our self-storage; a big sea container just outside the town of Wellington. Until a few decades ago the site was a flourishing farm: a house, some sheds and fields of crops and cattle. It has since been turned into a little industrial estate. Today’s cash-cows are one hundred brand new shipping containers. They arrived chock-full of produce, Made in China, and are unlikely to ever ship anything back. So, bought at a bargain, the containers now hold books, clothes, tools, couches, kitchens, furnishings of offices and entire households.

While digging our goldmine of long-forgotten treasures, I unpacked one of my favourite books: Milan Kundera’s ‘The unbearable lightness of being’.

Kundera’s classic beautifully describes the human paradox of weight and lightness. We know that we are transient, on earth as human being only for a little moment in time. Part of a never-ending process of creation, participants in the enormous unfolding universe. But at the same time we long for a sense of importance, a significant role in the grand scheme of things. We wish to be visible, to be heard, read, listened to, recognized. We have a desire to shape today, the future and history. To be remembered, to show our power and possessions. We long to have weight.

Our economy expresses this paradox. Few of us doubt the fact that we humans leave too heavy traces and affect the health of our planet irreversibly. We recognise that society is overweight, too large for the carrying capacity of the Earth. Many of us share the wish to lighten up and reduce our impact, yet our economy, its models and its measures of progress remain heavy.

Our current economy is based on debt. We borrow to invest in the future, and because we have to repay our debt plus interest, tomorrow’s income always has to be larger than today’s. We have locked ourselves in a system in which we need to grow, grow, grow, only to fill the hole we created yesterday. This counts for individuals as well as businesses and governments. With the necessity of growth built into our model, it is hardly surprising that society ends up obese. Obese in individual physique, and obese in terms of the amount of stuff we buy, own, keep and waste.

We may laugh or look with pity at Americans too big to fit in a cinema seat, roll our eyes at the size of participants in Jamie’s Food Revolution, yet in all western societies we are just as overweight. Partakers in an economic system in which More is Better, and Less is called Recession. A system in which doing ‘something’ makes money, while doing ‘nothing’ does not. Even if that ‘nothing’ makes a lot more sense to the planet, society, ourselves.

The business of self-storage is booming. Even in economic downturn, our collective addiction to gaining weight, our economic obesity, makes for lucrative business. Out-of-town areas that were once used for growing true value: food, meadows, trees – have now become waiting rooms for the dump. Our love handles of progress – clothes, shoes, phones, laptops, books, movies, furniture, lamps, decorations, TV’s, radios, camera’s, bags, jewellery, crockery, knick-knacks, perifernalia, – have grown out of proportion. We now need self-storage to carry our big stuffed bellies.

We all know what a beautiful body looks like: healthy, fit, strong and energetic. Physical beauty is diverse, and there are 7 billion shapes and sizes that can express these qualities. Our collective body can be beautiful too. An economy showing health, fitness, diversity and vitality.

A beautiful economy is graceful and light at heart. Light-footed like a dancer, in tune with the rhythms of Life, flexible and agile like creation itself. And beautiful progress? In these times of economic obesity, I believe in a second wave of enlightenment. One that has little to do with luminosity, but with reducing our longing for heaviness and matter. A wave of enlightenment in which we take the weight off our footprints, tighten our belts, leave our materialism and workaholism behind. Rather than seeing a smaller economy as an unbearable crisis, we change our perspective and view systemic health and fitness as the Beautiful Lightness of Being.

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5 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. Great, this comparison you make is very sharp. I’ve been recently re-reading Kundera’s Book so it’s been curious finding your reference here… Since 4 years ago I’ve been also thinking about this problem of ‘collection’ and self-storage, mainly as a consequence of moving out from one house to another and packaging all my luggage of life on and on. That’s a turning point to realize how many un-useful things we store in our living… perhaps it’s time to move out from this obese system to another for most of the society to realize how many non-useful stuff are we supporting and bearing 🙂
    Greetings from an Spanish in Berlin,
    Pedro 😉

  2. It is ridiculous now, we have to consume less. The only pot plant I have now is a basil plant – I can eat that! I don’t anything ornamental and always think how things can be recycled. Many people are consuming far too much and others lack money because of disability and don’t have enough.

  3. I hope there is an emerging consensus that continual population expansion and economic “growth” in the face of increasingly obvious constraints of finite resources will challenge and encourage our best minds and politicians to come to the realization that enough is enough. Instead of continual growth models, could we not transition to steady-state models, if not curtailment, and acknowledge that we have enough and do not need ever more material consumption and possesions to be happy and indeed thrive?.

  4. While I dream of a time when all people recognize these truths, I believe humans nature as a whole isn’t capable of breaking the cycle without help. Only some true catastrophe (unbelievably – it will need to be bigger than Sandy or the tsunami) will unite us all in making the necessary collective mind shift. I find that overwhelming to think about though – so I just try to make my own community more relationship and experience focused…. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Great article, well written and on point – I will share it around.

    My two pennies: I don’t think the cycle can be broken as long as we have a debt-based money system in which the broad money supply is created and allocated by commercial banks. These institutions (or, more precisely, a handful of their board members) decide where the money supply is to be injected/allocated.

    “The financial crisis of 2007/08 occurred because we failed to constrain the private financial system’s creation of private credit and money.” – Adair Turner, Bank of England, 2012

    The power to create money by a dozen or so people is tantamount to a democratic crisis that must be remedied if we are to tackle the ‘growth imperative, which derives from the debt imperative’ (paraphrased from Greco, 2010).

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