Those who do not move, do not notice their chains. – Rosa Luxemburg
I’ve been thinking a lot about gravity wells. There is something beautiful that emerges from a conceptual model that takes an opaque concept and puts it into intuitive terms. So, at risk of pushing a metaphor too far, I’ve been entertaining a whimsical thought experiment about how we interact and engage with the world around us. Though I’m genuine in my effort, I ask you not to take any of this too seriously.
With the physical model of a gravity well, you might have heard of the idealized, perfectly flat rubber sheet. If a massive object is placed on the sheet, it locally distorts the geometry of that sheet to create a funnel shape around the massive object. The orbital behavior of objects that pass by the massive object and the rate upon which those other objects are drawn to that massive object mimic the effects of gravity we experience in our universe. How this is useful is that we get a simple graphical representation of how objects interact with one another in space-time as we experience it on our timescale and at our size.
There is one big gravity well we are all very familiar with. Earth. We were born on it. We live on it. We are bound to it, and, in fact, we are a part of it. If you really think about it, from a distance, you and I are Earth. Each of us plays a small role in the total mass of the Earth, and each of us collectively plays a role in drawing other massive objects towards Earth. To attempt to leave Earth, to disconnect from it by crawling out of the gravity well, takes an absurd amount of effort and resources. And Earth’s gravity well is just the beginning. Our Earth is bound to the gravity well that is the Sun, and we wiggle in our orbit around the Sun due to the gravity well of the Moon. The Sun and the Moon and all of the planets make the gravity well of the solar system, which itself is bound to the gravity well of the Milky Way galaxy, which itself is a gravity well that influences the behavior of our local cluster. I still don’t get tired of thinking through this, even as I reread my writing here.
More abstractly, I think we are surrounded by things in our lives that hold what I’ll call “experiential mass”. And if these things have “mass”, maybe they bend the fabric of reality around our experiences. Pushing this metaphor, they shape our perception of reality. They can be peculiar, fascinating, boring, unexamined, alluring, and even inescapable and terrifying all mixed together. These things take relatively little energy to be drawn to, but once your proximity is close enough to them, it takes a significant amount of energy to change your relationship to them.
A visceral example of something with experiential mass is a bad habit. It takes a lot more effort to stop a bad habit than it takes to start one. Much like it takes a lot more energy to reach the Earth than it does to enter its orbit. To push the metaphor, we even say things like “I fell into this habit”. Or, “I feel stuck and can’t get out”. And even if you eliminate a bad habit, some part of it always stays with you. A shadow of its influence never fully goes away.
Gravity wells aren’t all bad though. They can certainly be useful. Without the gravity well of Earth and its unique composition and proximity to the Sun, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. I’d argue we need the benefits of gravity wells larger than ourselves. The issue comes from when you decide that you want to live beyond what is available to you in a gravity well or from dealing with problems introduced by attempting to leave the influence of a gravity well.
Experiential gravity wells are those things that bind us to something. Where you live has a gravity well. Your community has a gravity well. Buying a home has a gravity well. Taking a job has a gravity well. Family has a gravity well. Identity, really of any kind, has a gravity well. Debt has a gravity well. Social media has a gravity well. Drinking alcohol has a gravity well.
The common thing here is that, much like gravity wells in our physical universe, there are layers of complexity of engagement. Maybe we find a gravity well in our lives and stay in orbit for a while. We are under its influence, but we haven’t touched down to the surface. While in orbit, it still takes effort to leave the gravity well, but not nearly as much as it would to leave the surface.
If you fully commit to a gravity well, the size of that gravity well (its mass) will influence your ability to ever leave that gravity well. Because of this fact, I’ve really tried to be mindful of what gravity wells I introduce and which I try to put effort into leaving.
Maybe home ownership in a community you love while working a job you love is really helping you find your best life. But if you decide, for whatever reason, you want to make a change, that you don’t want to be part of that community, and you don’t want that job, the level of effort to uproot can be substantial. There are probably familial and community gravity wells that would also have to be addressed. By choosing to leave a gravity well, you also lose the protections and advantages that that gravity well might provide.
To push this physics metaphor unforgivably further, gravity wells in our lives lead to n-body problem complexity. Each gravity well we introduce adds mass to the total system, but the complex orbital patterns that emerge from keeping a large assortment of gravity wells become increasingly hard to predict.
So, over the last three years, I’ve been working to minimize the gravity well count. My family and I exited several large ones when we sold our home, left Austin, and moved to Costa Rica. I also left the use of social media and made other important changes to try simplifying that variable set. I wrote about a core principle here in a post from March of 2018.
Costa Rica life, itself, is a powerful gravity well. It’s one we’ve been orbiting (and enjoying) since May of 2017. Last year, we came very close to buying a home in Costa Rica. A commitment that would have put us on a trajectory that would have bound us to the Costa Rica gravity well for a long time. Later in the year, that deal fell through, and that experience and withdrawal interestingly brought us so close to the surface and set off a change of events that slingshotted us into a new experiential orbit. After deep introspection, Sarah and I decided to leave Costa Rica entirely. Not out of fear or failure, but because it felt right, and we were ready for our next move. It’s funny how this stuff works out sometimes. We’ve settled on Colorado Springs, of all places. We just bought a house. I just took a full-time job that emerged from a long-time client (I’m fortunate enough to continue to work remotely). All of this stuff sort of fell into place after we set our trajectory to leave Costa Rica, not before.
So, as we close one chapter of our lives and start another, I feel very fortunate that my wife, daughter and I were able to take a step back, slow down, heal, introspect, and focus in a way that I don’t think would have been possible in the US during the last two/three years. Honestly. If you have the opportunity to make a big change like that – take it. Listen to your intuition and make that change.
Experiential gravity wells are fascinating forces that are all around us. They shape us and guide us and influence us in ways that can be difficult to predict sometimes. But with a little effort and a lot of luck, sometimes the gravity wells can pull you to places you could never have imagined and change you in ways that you couldn’t have predicted. Here is to another year traveling around the largest gravity well in our solar system. I hope it turns out to be a fantastic one for you. I know I’m excited about what the future holds and look forward to sharing what happens over the coming months.