Balancing act

Balancing act
Need to alleviate a guilt hangover? Vaughn Davis argues in favour of taking away the bad, rather than throwing more 'good' at the problem.

You have a big Friday night. One sausage roll leads to another*, and before long you’re wrapping your lard-smeared paw around a karaoke microphone, singing “I love sausage rolls,” in a way neither Joan Jett nor any one of her Blackhearts envisaged.

The next morning, nursing the mother of all sausage roll karaoke hangovers, you head for the gym, as you do most Saturdays. 

It’s become something of a vicious cycle. Friday night on the sausage rolls; Saturday morning on the treadmill. Repeat.

Exercise has its cost, though. And not just the $1,000 a year you pay to belong to the gym. All that treadmill-pounding takes its toll, and before long you’re seeing a physiotherapist who, between bursts of convincing you that what you have is an ‘injury’ and you MUST put this on ACC, recommends a pair of $200 shoes to help with your overpronation, and a $20 dictionary so you can look overpronation up.

A gym membership. A physio visit. Expensive shoes. A Friday night on the sausage rolls.

If you’re a smoker (or used to be; the ads never quite go that far), a New Zealand company with a seemingly limitless radio advertising budget will sell you a three-month course of herbal pills to make your lungs work properly again.

If owning two cars seems a bit over the top, you could always make one of them a hybrid. And if your family’s power bills are through the roof, investing in energy-saving lightbulbs and appliances could help.

If you absolutely, positively must have four coffees a day, then choosing Fair Trade beans might make up for the impact of shipping them halfway across the world, boiling all that water and feeding, watering and milking all those cows.

And if it’s you that you’re shipping halfway across the world, you can make that all OK too by ticking the ‘please plant a tree for me’ box when you make that online airline booking. I guess it’s the personal equivalent of an energy company, or a mine, or a smelter finding some endangered animal or other (Just please make it a cute one this time! No more insects!) to sponsor. It’s seductive, it’s everywhere and it’s a disease.

I call it ‘additive balance’.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve come to accept that the best and only way to deal with an excess of bad things in our lives is to add enough good things so they balance out.

On the one hand, you could see this as nothing more than restoring the universe’s karmic ledger. You sin, and you balance that with a virtuous act. Om, etc. 

Image caption

On the other, you could see it as nothing more than adding more and more stuff to your life – real, physical stuff, financial stuff, or time-from-your-day stuff – instead of taking the simpler route: Take away the bad things.

Enjoy sausage rolls in moderation, then perhaps you won’t need that gym membership.

Make do with just one car (I know! I’m just crazy sometimes.) Walk. Ride your bike. Take the bus.

Save yourself a 12-hour flight and Skype instead. (But plant that tree anyway.)

Don’t drink as much coffee. Bonus points: make it Fair Trade if you want. But don’t subconsciously treat ticking the ethical box as a licence to overconsume.

Get to goodness, in other words by reducing badness, not by adding more stuff to your life.

‘Subtractive balance’ is a pretty simple idea, but it doesn’t seem quite as compelling as its ‘Additive’ cousin. Why? Because of rogues like me, partly. Guilt is a powerful motivator, and there’s money to be made selling remedies to real or imagined problems.

No-one, other than Adbusters, maybe, is going to invest in selling you a solution that costs nothing and doesn’t involve you buying something. (As an aside, I vividly remember my first Buy Nothing Day. I bought an iMac.)

Consumerism is a quick fix. Moreover, it’s tangible. You can see the running shoes in their box, watch the little green LED on the dishwasher telling you you’re in Eco Mode.

Hear the grateful trill of an endangered bird somewhere as you tick the ‘plant a tree’ box on the airline website.

Abstinence is more of a slow burn, and it’s invisible. Unlike your new Prius, you can’t show off your non-existent third car to your friends, or take them out for sausage rolls you no longer eat. No-one will stamp your card for the coffees you don’t buy, and there are no Fly Buys points for not going to the service station so often.

It’s an idea, in short, that seems doomed to fail. But that hasn’t stopped me from having it. And I hope, just maybe, that it makes you think twice about where and how to find balance in your life.

Right, I’m off for a sausage roll (true story). But maybe just the one, thanks.

*Your vice may vary to that of @vaughndavis.