At too high speed, the bus hits another pothole. The dozen passengers, flustered from the pressing heat, bounce uncomfortably in their seats, their t-shirts already sticking to their sweaty backs.
They endure the stinging torture of the uneven gravel road without protest. It is what it is. The seven kilometre distance through lush tropical fields of maize and banana trees feels like at least twice that, and is guaranteed to leave both blisters and bruises. The driver doesn’t seem to mind, skilfully avoiding the worst holes while speeding through the flatter sections. For most passengers, it’s a nauseating experience: loud, dusty, warm, and uncomfortable.
What on a paved and well-maintained road would take a few minutes, takes in these desolate parts between twenty and twenty-five. Depending on the driver’s mood — and how quickly he wants to arrive — the ride can reach degrees of discomfort hitherto unimagined.
Trained in the field most concerned with trade-offs, I quickly start to consider the wider system at play here. Sure, this is a fairly remote and low-density area of an otherwise poor country (flirting with High Income-status, according to the World Bank’s official thresholds). It’s not unthinkable that they have more important things on their mind than paved roads. For a moment I’m embarrassed as I realise that what I’m asking for is a luxury good in a place not affluent enough to splurge on such excesses.
But if you don’t pay for roads in money, you pay for them in discomfort. Perhaps discomfort is easier to balance than a bank account. Perhaps discomfort is easier to endure than the prohibitive costs of building a flat road. In one way or another, you pay for the roads.
After all, not that many people bother the seven kilometres to town very often, so what’s the big deal? Local people probably know their own circumstances and preferences better than I do.
Ten months later and some 8,000 kilometres away, I see a newly laid and well-kept pedestrian lane along the icy waters. Different country, different priorities. Nature, is more vicious too, freezing and thawing water over and over, quickly damaging any road. I notice a spot with visible water damage, though judging by how fresh the asphalt is, it can’t be much more than a few months old.
It seems the climate of this North Atlantic island is not exactly kind to roads.
A Tax on Existence
Whenever I spent time at the American Institute for Economic Research’s wonderful campus in rural Massachusetts, I occasionally had to drive a fellow visitor to an airport or a train station. Situated where it is, away from most communications in the blissfully still and beautiful Berkshires, this is sometimes the only option — especially at weekends or evenings, with staff away or busy with more important tasks.
While seemingly “a waste,” the chore never bothered me. I’m contributing to a public good (technically, a club good — or a narrowly circumscribed collective pool of favours), knowing that someone else will eventually repay me in-kind. For staying at the mansion and enjoying the wonderful place that is AIER’s campus, this is a cost that must occasionally be paid. And I’m happy to pay it.
Staring at the slowly-eroding bike lane in Reykjavik, I’m reminded of both these events — driving people to airports in New England and those uncomfortable bus rides in rural Costa Rica. To have the things we want, we must pay the price. Ideally, we’d like not to—free things would be nice! But we don’t live in a utopian world of post-scarcity and endless affluence. Things have downsides; our desires come with constraints. It is what it is — accept the cost and move on.
In at least two ways, nature places the ultimate constraints on our lives. If you want bike lanes and roads in top condition in Iceland — exposed to tormenting winds and heavy rainfall that repeatedly freezes, thaws, and freezes again — you’re spending lots of time and resources on their upkeep. If you, like my tico friends and neighbours in Montezuma, have more crucial things on your mind, you may decide to pay for poorly-maintained roads with time and bruises instead of money.
The second way nature places constraints on us is more personal — biologically or even more crucially, psychologically. On an individual level, we all have flaws and constraints that we struggle with. I can’t dribble like LeBron, shoot like Rooney, or sing like Adele — which would be serious constraints if I was aiming for a life in their fields.
I have tons of increasingly severe migraines, a genetic flaw that invades my daily life on a very unpredictable basis. While I frequently curse heaven and hell and everything in-between for those days of excruciating pain, there’s very little I or anyone else can do about them. Accept the costs and move on. I often envy friends or acquaintances for portions of their lives — for not suffering from my stupid neurologic condition, for earning more money than I do, for having more successful careers or splendid relationships that I don’t.
To invoke a religious analogy, we all have crosses to bear, burdens that wear us down. Some we created ourselves, others we can helplessly blame on poor genetics or Lady Fortuna.
Whenever that vile-tasting envy fills my mind, I remind myself of the rule in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life that most resonated with me:
#4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who somebody else is today.
We all operate under different circumstances. We begin at different starting points, we aim for different outcomes. We have different goals and values and ideas of how to get there. Consequently, we end up at different stages of our differing journeys.
Thankfully, there isn’t just a handful of ways of being a good human being. If we were all competing along the same well-trodden dimensions of cars, houses, promotions, salaries, or beauty, most of us would be condemned to an unsuccessful life of relative misery. Thankfully, there are a millions ways to excel. From being a good parent, to running the soup kitchen in your community, combinations of values multiply the dimensions available.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. You should compare what you’re working on now to your own potential, your own limitations — not the countless successes or failures of others.
My own combination (of health, travel, languages, yoga, writing, nature and inner peace) seems to work for me so far. Even if I might want something else — and enviously crave it in the abstract — I might not be willing to do the work. Or it might be out of reach, given the constraints that life biologically, physically, or temporally put on me.
Getting the things I want for myself involve overcoming challenges that are uniquely mine — stoically bearing the burdens, proudly carrying the cross. Dreaming about the unreal lives of some Insta-influencer or imagining how wonderful life in someone else’s shoes is less than useful.
Constraints matter, and constraints are real. You pay for roads either with large maintenance teams or with bruises.
We all pay a price for the paradises we create. Accept them and move on.