Seeking Contrast

Photo: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections
Photo: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections

You’ve hiked for 10 hours. It’s hot, you’re dripping with sweat, and you taste salt on your lips. It isn’t fun any longer. Actually, it hasn’t been for a while. Your backpack is grinding into the base of your neck, there are blisters on your feet, and your water is tepid and running low. It doesn’t matter, though. There are five miles left, and no one’s carrying you home.

Upon finally reaching the base of the mountain, you release a small whimper of relief. At a small creek, you wash off your boots and trade them for a (suddenly very light seeming) pair of runners. Limping your way to the truck, you barrel in with your friends. It’s strange to simultaneously feel both so weary and alive. It was an exhausting day, but you saw breathtaking country, connected with great friends, and now have a fine reason to kick back.

After 45 minutes in transit, you roll up to a pub. A couple of pitchers are ordered, and that first sip of beer is mahtava (Finnish for magnificent, but somehow more so). The long wait for nourishment comes to an end as a cavalcade of plates heaping with burgers and fries arrive. You devour everything in sight, and are taken aback by how good that burger tasted… perhaps better than any before it.

Contrast is to thank for this. It expands the available spectrum of emotion and experience, adding fidelity to our lives. Sadly, it’s under attack.

Our modern society provides easy, and persistent, access to delightful indulgences, but this is contradictory to how indulgence works. While you can hole up in a pub and eat a burger every day, it just won’t taste as good as it did when you were really tired and hungry.

In order to feel anything, we have to seek out—and even create our own—contrast. Doing so isn’t difficult, but it does require one to make certain choices. It’s also anathema to a population that insists upon being comfortable at all times.

Want to gain contrast? Perhaps take a month off, from television. The first few days will be an immense drag; you won’t know what to do with your evenings. Should you stick with it, you’ll find yourself thinking about it less each day. By the end of your “telexile,” you’ll turn that machine on more consciously. Odds are, you’ll mark the occasion with a really good program/film, a little popcorn, and a nice glass of wine. (A dramatically different experience from zoning out daily to a stream of reality TV.)

Better than that, though, you might find that the things you do during your down-time also become enjoyable. Maybe you’ll now have the time to catch up on some reading, fix that broken kitchen faucet, get a little extra sleep, or treat the Kama Sutra like an instruction manual for the month’s evening pursuits.

In order to fully experience things, you need contrast.


  1. I love reading your posts. They somehow validate all the crazy ideas floating around in my head just by knowing there’s people out there that think the same way. Let me know if you ever need a hand writing content ; )

  2. I love this sentiment Eric, your’e so right, healthy self restraint only makes the pleasureable thing that much more enjoyable. It comes from self control and practiced abstinence from those little indulgences we take for granted daily. Great post!

  3. Hi Eric,
    This is so true! We need contrast to enjoy things, yet we rail against it!
    I experience this is a small way with my favorite coffee. It’s a healthy coffee I order in. Every once in a while I let it run out so that I have to wait for the next delivery. That first cup, and just knowing my pantry is full again makes me appreciate it all the more!
    I enjoyed this very much!

  4. I have said for sometime that one cannot experience joy without having experienced sadness. Without one to compare the other to there is no scale. Life without tension, without contrast, just isn’t as much fun.

  5. It is so true! I love your description of the hike, it is right on point. Recently I did this with television, and in addition to the effect you mentioned it had another effect: I am now less tolerant of bad or monotonous programming. I’ve done this before, so I know that when I am consistently watching television I will sit there and watch anything, and I unfortunately know that I am capable of doing that all day. However, after going at least a few weeks without it, all of a sudden it’s intolerable to watch anything but that which really piques my interest, and feels taxing to sit there for more than an hour or so.

  6. Thoroughly enjoying every post. As Gabe mentioned it’s refreshing to see my values expressed by someone else so eloquently. A solid reminder that I’m doing just fine. Cheers.

  7. Wise, compelling insights. Thank you. Oh, and I like your vivid yet simplistic graphics. Is there a name yet for this style of drawing?

  8. This backpacking example is awesome and totally accurate. I did a lot of backpacking growing up and have lived this example. Nothing puts life into perspective like backpacking.

    Been reading this site on and off for 3 days. Great blog.

    1. It is pretty remarkable to see how a little fresh air clear one’s mind. Our kids are really getting into it. They’re 3 and 6, and love being in the mountains.

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog, too. :-)

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