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  • Ken Ilgunas

Tax Return

This past weekend, I received a whopping $1,600 tax return. Between the golden ticket that Uncle Sam was kind enough to slip in my bank account and my weekly wage from my part-time job, I can confidently proclaim that my financial worries are over.

You’d think that I’d be jubilantly celebrating the end of my destitution, but the truth is, I’m not. Rather, I feel strangely uneasy about the whole thing.

This past week I went on a week-long field trip for my class, “Biodiversity in North Carolina.” Knowing that my tax return was coming, I slackened some of my strict spartan standards. I bought a case of beer, I dined at a restaurant twice, and I slept in a heated room on a comfortable bed.

I couldn’t help but feel guilty. It was as if I had cut some corner that I promised myself I wouldn’t cut.

One night—beleaguered with self-reproach—I dragged my sleeping bag out onto the grass and slept under the stars where I felt much more at ease.

I remember thinking: I didn’t need these things: the beer, the food, the bed. And looking back, I don’t think I even wanted them. I simply slugged a few beers, and ate a fancy sandwich because I could.

Before I enrolled in grad school, I decided not to take out loans because I knew that if I allowed myself access to easy money then I would again fall victim to the consumerist trap. I’d be indiscreet with my money; I’d begin to pay for and rely on things that I thought I needed, but really didn’t. And worst of all, I’d lose perspective.

We work because we think we must “make a living.” But “making a living,” now, entails buying impressive vehicles, lavish homes, heat, air-conditioning, and a million other “staples” that are all things that you do not need to live. Yet we believe that 4/5ths of the shit we buy is necessary. This is because we have lost perspective. And in order to pay for these unnecessaries we sign up for years of onerous labor even though the things and comforts may do us more harm than good in the end.

Radical living has been an absolute success. It’s been easy. Too easy, in fact. This is a tad disconcerting because 1. Living in a van has not tested me as much as I hoped it would and 2. I can’t help but feel that my experiment’s unchallenged success may forebode doom in my impending future. Am I destined to have a run-in with campus security? Robbed by a bum? Or will a tornado whisk the van and I off to a parallel universe?

Now that I have money, the thrill of my enterprise has waned. No longer must I think of innovative ways to make meals, wash clothes, or sustain myself—I can just pay for it.

When I worried earlier about making my tuition payments, I suffered from spells of anxiety. But I was also exhilarated. Now it’s as if somebody’s slung a giant safety net under the tight-rope I’ve been bravely walking along.

For the first time in my life, I’ve thought about giving all my money—or at least some of it—away, to reassert my commitment to voluntary poverty. Prudence (or cowardice), however, cautions me otherwise.

There is no question that radical living has been an absolute success, practically speaking. I’ve made my tuition payments, received a semester’s worth of top-quality education, and have upheld my high standard of health.

But the novelty of my experience is beginning to wear. I think I liked it better when I precariously skirted along the edge of bankruptcy. Perhaps this just means I need to take it the next level. What that is—I’m not sure. An official vow of celibacy? A tent in the woods? Self-flagellation? We’ll see.


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