Freedom: The Ability to Let That Which Does Not Matter Truly Slide
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” – Walden
Every year from mid-June to mid-July in Southwestern Alaska millions of salmon migrate from the ocean, some ranging from as far away as Japan, and pass through Bristol Bay to swim up the Nushagak River to spawn.
Some of these salmon don’t make it up the river and end up on your dinner plate instead. There is a decent chance that I, or my friends, caught them in order for this to happen.
My friend Corey runs a salmon fishing crew that works four of the very limited number of fishing sites in Bristol Bay during the salmon season.
I work on this crew and we spend about a month pulling a long net onto our small aluminum boat, picking salmon out of it by hand and setting them in large bags of iced seawater to be hoisted onto a larger boat. This boat has another much larger tank of chilled seawater and the salmon are taken immediately from there to a processor to be turned into fillets and flash frozen. Over the course of that month we’ll pull up to 100,000 pounds of salmon, mainly Chinook and Sockeye, one at a time out of the water.
We live in a small cabin on a beach overlooking Bristol Bay. I sleep shrouded in mosquito netting in a sleeping bag on a tiny bunk which would be more accurately described as a shelf.
We have a gas stove, a gas-heated shower that some wonderfully thoughtful individual harvested out of an RV, and a stockpile of food. There is no electricity and no cell phone reception. Lunch and dinner most days are generally in the form of salmon, pulled fresh from the ocean on the way in from our shift and filleted on a table outside the cabin. Because the summer solstice is this time of year, there are only about two hours of darkness each night with a two-hour sunset and sunrise on either end.
The striking thing about fish camp during ones first week or so is the utter lack of things to preoccupy oneself with. You realize immediately how addicted you have become to electronic gadgets and constant low-level engagement. You’ll find yourself aching to know what’s turned up in your email or unconsciously feeling your hip pocket to see if your cell phone was just vibrating from a text message. The thought that you have no idea what’s going on with your friends, your bills or your business back home eats at you.
At some point though, this all melts away. You realize that no matter how much you worry or what you spend your time thinking about, you absolutely cannot affect anything outside of fish camp. All of the little nagging stresses begin to dissolve and you settle into a routine of eating, sleeping and fishing. In spare time there is nothing to do but read, smoke fish over alder branches or hang around a bonfire with a bottle of whiskey being perpetually passed in a circle. Spending 90 minutes sitting on a log in front of the fire watching the sun slowly disappear below the horizon is just as productive as anything else you could possibly be doing.
Fishing is brutally hard work. You’ll be shaking from the cold, in driving rain and 40 degree air, trying with numb hands to pick fish out of the nets as quickly as possible without splattering yourself in the face with fish slime and squinting in the darkness to decide if you’re holding a Sockeye or Keta salmon. During the largest runs of fish, you may easily go two days without sleeping at all or eating much of anything.
Other times are spent in utter boredom, waiting for the tides to switch while sitting enshrouded in icy fog on a cold aluminum boat with nothing more to occupy your mind than trying really, really hard not to itch your face.
If you look closely, there’s someone attempting to sleep in the hull of the boat.
During the downtime though, you feel yourself overcome with a sense of peace. I’ve never once set an alarm clock at fish camp. Corey sets his and I fall asleep knowing that I’ll be woken up when it’s time to go again. Even during the work, there is only one task to think about and your mind is free from the usual nagging worries that follow each of us around during our daily lives.
It occurred to me at some point in Alaska how rare this level of freedom from preoccupation is. At home, despite being surrounded by every manner of convenience and labor saving device it’s nearly impossible to reach this level of mental sovereignty; to reach, as Palahniuk called it, “The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.”
Success in America is generally associated with financial gain. A bigger bank account equals more success. Many of my peers own businesses which function to provide incomes-to bring us money and success. Most of us are also striving to increase those incomes in order to facilitate further endeavors in our lives. But what happens when you find this success and realize that the business, the job and the lifestyle that you’ve created is also inescapable?
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Have you ever walked away from it all? Are you capable of separating yourself mentally-and even physically-from each one of your possessions and conveniences? Have you ever tried?
What would happen if you did?
What will happen if you turn off your cell phone, your laptop and your television for an entire day? For a month? What kind of systems would you have to put in place so that nothing would fall apart in your absence? More importantly, what are you going to do with yourself when you can no longer text message and email and stare at your television?
I recently took a smaller-scale approach. I bought the pro version of Rescue Time and it tracks everything I do with my laptop. If I spend more than 45 minutes on distracting, time-filling activities or more than an hour per day on email I get a little warning box that tells me to quit wasting time. If I get one of those messages, I close my laptop for the day and do not touch it again. During certain hours, I have distracting sites like email, Youtube and Facebook blocked so that I can’t access them even if I try. As I write this, my cell phone is on silent and in my backpack.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably more driven than most. You likely take more active interest in and control of your own happiness than the average person. I urge you to consider that freedom from worry and preoccupation is one of the most crucial components of happiness. This ability is just as important to seek and develop as any other personal goal you set for yourself. It’s really only after you’ve felt it for the first time that you can understand what it feels like and what you’ve been missing.