Why the Standard American Life Experience Is Not for Me

For S.A.L.E.

If I've confirmed one thing in 2016, it's that the Standard American Life Experience is not for me. I began packing up and selling off parts of the America Dream back in 2011. The American Dream has never really been my dream. I thought it was. I internalized and achieved the principal desires and expectations of society. I went to college, put some letters behind my name, achieved "success" in my profession, bought a big house, got married, bought a bigger house, put some commas in the bank, and traveled. It was one S.A.L.E after another, but it never felt right in my gut. I felt more conflicted and anxious than "happy".

My compass shifted in 2011 when my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Many of us can relate to those moments in life when we are reminded what really matters to us. We are reminded of our own mortality. Then Monday rolls around and we find ourselves stuck in the same routine. It's somewhat normal coping, I guess. I started to gain enough conviction to challenge the conventional beliefs and decide for myself what I valued.

When I sold the big house with the picket fence people asked, "What are you doing?" "Why don't you appreciate what you have?" I no longer wanted to work for "stuff" that I only "needed" because I worked. Somehow buying "stuff" and taking trips made work worthwhile. 

Working in healthcare for over two decades has been rewarding and has provided me with a sense of purpose, but it has also been a constant reminder of just how fragile our existence can be. I began to challenge the idea of our "Golden Years". I certainly wasn't going to wait until I was 65 to pursue interests outside of my given profession. At 65, would I even be able to? There are no guarantees. Yet, that's the American Dream. When I retire, I'll...(fill in the blank). One question that persists for me is whether "retirement" is an all-or-nothing proposition or can we re-evaluate our interests and take a new direction? Many in our society would call this a mid-life crisis, but I see it as an opportunity for a mid-life reassessment. 

"What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" - Mary Oliver 

I felt liberated with each sale of my material possessions, comfortable in a space that was more proportionate to my needs. The elephants in the room couldn't hide behind the chaise lounge, HDTV, and buffet table anymore. I was able to spend more time out on the trails of the Wasatch Mountains and began to dust off my once shiny, creative Soul. 

"Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest of fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?" - Seneca

In April 2016, I made a deliberate choice to explore some questions that I just couldn't find the answer to by thinking my way through them. Although I had simplified my life significantly, I still had a deep feeling that I was living with excess. 

What began for me as a personal challenge to live out of a van for 21 days, quickly turned into vanlife. I have to admit that the novelty of #vanlife has worn off for me. It's apparent that, as I reflect on 2016, vanlife became more about the experiences made possible by simple living. It became clear to me that life wasn't about figuring out the elusive "balance" between work and life. It was about being deliberate and engaged with both. Isn't work as much a part of life as life is a part of work? 40+ hours per week working seems like a lot of life to not consider it living. Don't get me wrong, I've felt the daily grind as much as the next person. I still do, but the moments when I drift off and disengage are much more apparent now than they were nine months ago. 

Living nomadically conditions one to be deliberate. From energy consumption to parking for the night, these choices can't be made mindlessly. It seems only natural that the behaviors became habits that spilled over into other aspects of living. I've felt more engaged in my profession than I have in years. The new challenge has become the awareness that accompanies the engaged state. While the appreciation for my profession and other interests grew, my tolerance for greed, ego, injustice, and the never-ending cycle of waste and consumerism waned. 

Along my travels into Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies I wrote, "The peace and solitude of the wilderness quiets my mind, but I must learn to be at peace with the noise of the World that awaits." Or, do we? We're often told to "learn to deal" and "manage" stress. We're expected tolerate the obnoxious noise and chatter as though it's protected under The First Amendment. It seems that lowering our threshold to stress rather than raising it will lead us to make choices where we can be more at peace. Which parts of modern society add value to our lives? What are we willing to sacrifice in exchange for a peaceful heart and a quiet mind? What is the value of this? If one could quantify the value of a peaceful heart and a quiet mind, would we redefine sacrifice? Would a simple life rich with experiences become an emblem of success rather than denote a self-indulgent dirtbag? I fall asleep peacefully tonight among fellow van dwellers along the Wasatch Front. Proud dirtbaggers ready to embrace the uncertainty that awaits in 2017! 

Published: January 2, 2017

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Jason Asleson

Park City

Trail-junkie; Full-time van dweller and clinical pharmacist based in Park City, Utah.