A friend is a trail hiker, and a few years ago, she hiked the Appalachian Trail, start to finish. It’s a long trail, more than 2,000 miles long, and starts in Georgia and ends in Maine. It’s a hiking-only trail, meaning no cars, no RVs, no 4 wheelers, or ATVs. While the trail does cross through towns in places, for the most part, you have to bring your supplies with you.
She said that stops on the trail are often littered with things that people packed in a fit of ambition, and then later discarded when they were no longer useful, or got too heavy, or turned out to not be useful. Sweaters people discarded as it got warmer. Tennis shoes with blown out sides. A 4 in 1 camp stove contraption that she said just looked awful heavy. Paperback books people had finished and then left.
As these things were no longer useful or needed, they were discarded, lightening the hiker’s load for the rest of the way.
A lot of us are also carrying things that no longer serve us, and yet they still have a space in our pack, weighing us down, making us tired, and even taking up space that we could use to carry something more useful.
I grew up economically poor in the ’70s and ’80s. Which is another way of saying I grew up eating margarine. It was dramatically cheaper than butter, and in my Southern household, it was a requirement to use copious amounts of a butter-like substance in every meal. I have no way of verifying this, but I am sure I never ate actual butter until I was in my late teens, and then almost surely at someone else’s home.
And if you grew up eating margarine instead of butter, what you never learn is how damn good butter – real butter – tastes. It is superior to margarine in every way but two – it melts easier for stove popped popcorn, and it is much, much cheaper in the store.
In my twenties, I began to take cooking seriously as a craft, and all my mentors and teachers recommended using butter. I ate butter in dishes and learned it was amazing. But I still bought margarine, because that is what people like me did, and because it was cheaper.
Actually, those are two ways of saying the same thing – people like me bought inferior goods because of the lower price, even when we could afford better. This, of course, was a holdover from all the money anxiety of my youth, when fear of hunger and destitution was real, and we made hard choices.
So I kept buying margarine.
At some point in my late 30’s, I decided that I was worth spending the extra $3 on, and I began buying real butter. And I haven’t looked back. And, incidentally, the food I make tastes so much better these days.
As you may have guessed, this isn’t about butter. Not really. I had to reach a place where I could put down not just the tub of margarine, but what that represented – scarcity, fear, identity – because they were no longer serving me. When you are counting every penny you have, a $3 difference in the grocery bill is critical. But that was no longer true for me. I was carrying things that no longer served me, and in fact, were holding me back.
We all do this. We all hold things dear that were once essential but now have outlived their usefulness.
At one point in human development, division by tribe was a useful skill. We gathered into groups based on similarities, and so we actively looked for how others were different than us. But these days, we are better served by looking at how others are similar to us. It’s time we put sorting by difference down.
In a sustenance based culture, it is important to hoard your resources, to ensure the survival of your own offspring. But in today’s world, few of us live in that sort of world, and so maybe we should put down hoarding, and take up sharing.
To get to this place, we are going to have to learn two skills that most of us were never taught: How to examine ourselves, and how to admit that we need to change. And until we are willing to do that, lots of us are going to be carrying things that have long outlived their usefulness.