The reasons for my decision
Back in June, I attended a cardiology appointment that had a profound impact on me. My meeting with the cardiologist was routine and I did not receive any alarming news, but I became aware of the fragility of my own body in a new way. As an infant I was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, and my life had been saved by the UK’s National Health Service and the surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I have always felt grateful for the life-saving help that I received, and could talk superficially about my condition with friends and loved ones, but now I see that I was also prone to a form of denial. Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood I placed my heart condition to one side as I tried to establish an identity for myself. My routine appointments continued from year to year, but in my conscious mind and my behaviour I aimed to suppress what they represented with denial and distraction. This year marks the first time that I am fully and consciously aware that I have a congenital heart condition. And while there is no reason why I cannot live a full and happy life, I am now awake to the fact that I nearly didn’t survive infancy.
“Until now, I feel that I have been sleepwalking through a cosy existence where words are worth more than action, and ethics is a philosophical concept rather than a lived practice.”
In recent years, another kind of awareness has grown and developed in my mind. I have become increasingly alert to the hardships faced by peoples and cultures, both locally and internationally. Since the economic crisis of 2008/9, I have witnessed an increase in poverty and inequality throughout the United Kingdom where I live, and particularly in the Welsh Valleys where I was born. I have seen increasing numbers of homeless men and women struggling to survive in the city of Cardiff, where I currently live, and an increase in the number of families and individuals seeking shelter from violence and persecution who are painfully exiled from their homelands. I have also witnessed wealthy institutions and public figures exploit the suffering of the poor and the dispossessed to increase societal divisions for the purpose of pursuing wealth, power, and influence. My reaction to this situation has evolved over time from anger, to profound disappointment, and ultimately to an awareness of the part I play, whether consciously or not. For too long I have been complacent with my own privilege and position, and I have put my own misguided ideas of comfort ahead of other people’s basic needs. I have felt ashamed to be among Christmas shoppers on a city High Street, walking past homeless people forced to beg in ice and rain. Until now, I feel that I have been sleepwalking through a cosy existence where words are worth more than action, and ethics is a philosophical concept rather than a lived practice.
Discovering my priorities
Since acknowledging the fragility of my own body and acknowledging my responsibility to those less fortunate than myself, I have begun to ask myself what my true priorities are. I have asked myself in earnest what would it mean to lead a meaningful life, a life that would bring me a sense of peace in the world. This question has led me to decide that I want to devote my life to living as simply as I can, and to pursue my vocation as a writer and photographer.
“I have always found comfort, solace, and exhilaration in the power of art to express the mystery, the ambiguity, and the wonder of human experience.”
I wish to live simply because it will allow me to wake up and put my ethical convictions into practice, to help other people by giving generously of my possessions and of my time. And I wish to write and take photographs because it is through these expressions that I feel most at home. I have always found comfort, solace, and exhilaration in the power of art to express the mystery, the ambiguity, and the wonder of human experience.
A simpler way of living
My decision to change occurred as I listened to the doctor during my cardiac appointment. I shared this new conviction, which felt very much like an epiphany, with my wife, Jennifer. From that afternoon, I have followed a healthy and nutritious diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, grains, and pulses. I do not eat meat (I have been vegetarian since I was a teenager), and the only animal products I consume are Greek yoghurt, honey, and occasionally oily fish. I do not eat processed or frozen foods. I also restrict the amount of salt that I consume. I drink plenty of water, and limit my caffeine intake to green tea. I no longer drink alcohol. I exercise every day, and my wife and I try to cycle each morning for around thirty minutes at a time.
I observe this routine every day, including on special occasions such as birthdays and gatherings. While the decision to limit the kinds of food I consume might seem strict, I find that I am choosing from a much greater variety of foods, herbs, and spices than ever before. Since changing the way that I eat and exercise, I feel calmer, more alert, and am enjoying every meal. I feel wonderful.
Giving away my material goods
In August, I began to go through my possessions and decided to keep only the things that have some practical use (and I include ‘joy’ and ‘happiness’ as practical uses). In addition to radically simplifying my wardrobe, I have donated hundreds of books (over two thirds of my library) to friends, colleagues, and charitable organisations.
My book collection has been growing since I began reading seriously as an adolescent, and while I have periodically sold or donated books here and there it has always been with the purpose of making space for new additions. This time, I started by questioning why I own a book collection in the first place: I concluded that I typically purchase books not simply to read and enjoy, but to represent some real, tangible, and material sense of my own identity—something that I can hold in my hands and share with others. I realised that many of the books in my collection no longer fulfil that purpose, and that many have never given me the joy or happiness of even a first reading. Instead, these purchases (which amount to hundreds, if not thousands of pounds) were taking up space in my life and weighing me down.
I resolved that I would keep only those books that I feel a genuine love and affection for, or which serve an explicit practical use. Every other book can be given to someone for whom it will be valued and appreciated. (At times, I was struck by the books that would stay and those that would go: several modernist authors were given away to a local charity shop, while the scrappy Stephen King paperbacks that I have adored since I discovered my love of reading and writing were kept close at hand. I take this as a sign.) In the future, I will prioritise the experience of reading over the accumulation of objects.
A new day
This site will continue as a growing archive of articles and interviews promoting literature and the arts, and I look forward to sharing my own personal story as it develops.
I do not know how I will support myself financially in the months and years to come, since I am not independently wealthy, but I have never been so certain of my path as I am today.
I want to express my gratefulness to all my family, friends, colleagues, students, and readers for helping me to reach the point I am at today, and I will look forward to each new day as it arrives.