What does luxury mean? We’re back to ideas that are sold to us from the outside, because it’s so easy to respond to that question with a vision of something that costs a fortune. The push towards ever greater consumerism is often one that asks us to turn old luxuries into things we consider essential, and then to hanker after even bigger, more expensive things.
For the sake of the planet, luxury needs to be a sustainable idea. I don’t think that’s quite as nuts as it sounds either. I do not believe that we’re going to save the world with a hair shirt mindset. Most people are not prepared to suffer for their own gain, much less anyone else’s, and we’re up against all those adverts that keep telling us that we should never experience a moment’s discomfort or inconvenience. Hair shirts are not going to enlist anyone. Not even me. But what if we could de-comodify the idea of luxury? What if we could make luxury, or the experience of the luxurious, that bit more affordable and sustainable? That would shrink a few carbon footprints.
You can’t indulge when you’re on the run. If you’re doing the ‘hectic lifestyle’ routine, grabbing instant food whilst running like a headless chicken from one assignment to the next, you can’t enjoy anything. So the luxury that makes all others possible, is slowing down. And often, slowing down is pretty cheap. A few hours off work will give you that.
A lie in is not expensive, but what is more luxurious than being free to sleep until you wake naturally, and then being leisurely about getting up? You don’t have to wallow in the duvet all day to feel the benefit. An extra hour, stolen from the hectic schedule, is a most lovely bit of self indulgence. Or how about having the time, just occasionally, to soak in a bathtub, to indulge in good massage or leisurely lovemaking? Time is the most precious thing we have, so using that time in pleasing, indulgent ways can create a feeling of luxury at little cost. And equally, no matter how much cash we spend, if we don’t give ourselves time to enjoy the indulgence, we don’t get much out of it. What good a vastly expensive cruise if you’re on the mobile talking to the office all the time?
One of the big mistakes we make, is finding a good thing and then indulging all the time so that the treat becomes normal and all sense of reward is lost. Some such treats become addictive and destructive when continually ‘indulged’. Alcohol for one. Luscious food, for another. Eat ice cream every day, and you’ll barely even notice it. Strawberries all year round are not as good as strawberries that only come fresh from the garden for a few glorious weeks. Preciousness and rareness often equate, but if we make something a regular feature, we deprive ourselves of the sense of a treat. Over exposure to anything can just de-sensitise us, so that we cease to appreciate, or even notice.
I used to sit out overnight to watch the mid summer sunrise. It’s a good opportunity to break with the normal routine. A mattress never feels so magical as it does after a night on a hill. A duvet becomes a gift of the gods then. A roof is a profound blessing. Contrast is good. Contrast allows us to see the real value of things. The more we wrap ourselves in ease, the less we get to enjoy what is good. The less able we become to notice the good in our lives. Coming in after working in the snow, hot soup is sublime.
I’ve stripped a lot of the twenty first century ‘luxury essentials’ out of my life in the last year – more from necessity than spiritual devotion, but it’s been good for me. Happiness is a sunny day when I can dry laundry, and just sit outside and enjoying being alive for a while, knowing that the batteries are charging. Happiness is having the time to soak in lots of hot water. It’s watching grebes dive outside the boat, and sleeping until 8 in the morning. Happiness is not having to cycle in the pouring rain, and happiness is also knowing that, if needs be, I am fit, well and strong enough to do that cycle ride in whatever conditions I get. Going to the pub for internet, electricity and cheesy chips is the pinnacle of self indulgence.
I am bloody determined that as my life swings back towards more conventional options, I am not going to forget these perceptions. The more I am able to enjoy the small things, the easier it is to be happy. The smaller my luxuries, the smaller my impact upon the planet. The closer I get to only having what is needful, the more I experience the indulgent quality of having more than is essential. And the more I see how few things really are essential after all.