Arch Linux & Difficulty

Do it because it is hard

A few months ago, I bought a new Lenovo X1 Carbon. The machine is a dream: lightweight, fast, beautiful display, Windows the fastest I had ever experienced. Yet as soon as I got it in my grubby fingers, I installed Arch Linux on it. In the weeks since my purchase, I have reinstalled Arch probably half a dozen times, partioned my drives a million different ways, forgot to set the correct file type on my /efi boot partition, installed countless window managers, display managers, desktop environments, fonts, Wayland, PulseAudio, slogged my way through .xinitrc and .Xresources, battled with netctl and wpa_supplicant, threw my head against the wall when dhcpcd wouldn’t look for IPv4 and instead tried to only connect to IPv6, cried just a little when I couldn’t get xrandr to properly position my monitors or adjust scale, and thought of giving it all up and just install Solus for an easier experience.

But I haven’t given up. I am still slogging through the process of getting my laptop set up. There is a long doc on my Firefox Notes app with a number of tips that I have found helpful when I’m reconfiguring wifi for the sixth time. It’s still hard, trying to figure out the many systems it takes to get a computer operating system installed, interacting with the hardware, and producing the results that I’ve been accustomed to in my decades-long experience with these machines. However, the process of installing the necessary pacakges and adding/updating configuration files has become easier. Patterns are starting to emerge. The frustration of something not working the first time—which, believe it or not, is more beneficial to my learning than it just working—has been replaced with calm curiousity and time spent rereading the Arch Wiki.

Why spend the time slogging through setting up a system when it would be fine to just install Solus and be done with it? Simply because I can and it is hard. It is the same with building my own furniture. The finished piece may not be as polished as something I bought in the store but, at the end of the day—or days, as the case may be—it is something I built with my own hands. I built my bed, my desk, my side table, to my specifications. There is a tiny tinge of pride when I would look at them. Now that I moved, I had to get rid of the furniture but I know that I can build them again. Those skills didn’t die when I moved. The skills may become a bit rusty but they’ll come back, just like riding a bike. Installing Arch and configuring everything, right down to the volume keys on my keyboard, teaches me new skills that I haven’t had before. These skills stay with me. These skills most definitely help me in my career. They also keep my career interesting. What is a career if it does not grow? What is a life if one does not grow?

I have always been one to get down to the basics and not rely on other things to solve problems for me. Instead of a GUI to interact with Git, I just run it from the command line. Instead of an IDE or dedicated text editor, I just use Vim. Instead of Windows or Mac, I just use Linux. I can change my own oil, build my own fire, build a bed. I may not consistently do those things; there is a certain joy in sitting in the car mechanic’s waiting room, reading a book, while someone else gets dirty changing my oil. For me, I want to know how things work, I want to be able to work the problem, I want to only have to rely on myself. Maybe it’s a fault, this inability to not rely on others or use the tools that were built to make life a bit easier and more enjoyable. Then again, maybe it’s not. I am not here to judge me or anyone else for that matter. All I know is that I find enjoyment in finding solutions—albeit my solutions, which may not be the correct solution—to problems I have, even if those problems are entirely of my own making.

This tendency to get down to basics and understand underlying systems have only benefitted my life, rather than take away from. Knowing how to drop down to a lower level helps me think through whatever the problem may be. I also have the consitution to do without. Creating hardship, on purpose1, helps me in those times when I have to do without through no choice of my own. I’ve written before that resiliency is the best human trait, in my humble opinion. Forcing one’s self into hardship gives you the knowledge that even if you don’t have the answers or skills, you’ll get through it.

Granted, all of this talk comes from the very privileged position I find myself in. I have a job, I have a car, I don’t have children. I have savings and a steady income, my career is in high demand. I’m a forty year-old white lady living in Boston. One could argue that I am making up hardship because I haven’t had to deal with any in my life. That may be true—largely, I think it isn’t—but everyone’s hardship isn’t defined by the standards of others (and one post on a blog does not convey the life of it’s author). Installing Arch and setting up this system with only the Wiki and forum posts, rather than an installer or GUI, is creating more hardship than might be worth it. I disagree. Having a system that I have fought for and that I understand is something that matters to me. Understanding what’s going on “under the hood” is valuable to me. Making stuff, whether that is furniture, fire, or gluing the systems of an OS together, gives me a bit of a high.

All of this to say that, if you’re in the position and have the time and means to sludge through the grueling process of installing and configuring Arch, do it. Even if you don’t end up using it long-term (hey, I may still go back to Solus), you will have learned much and, I think, be better off in the long run. Do it because it’s hard. Do anything because it’s hard. The hard bits of life? Those are the times we often look back in fondness. Those are the times that shape who we are. Why would you give that up?

  1. When I lived in Lincoln, I drove the 45-minute commute to work without heat on in the dead of winter often; it was cold and a bit painful but I survived it. Only one person I have told this to understood the why of it. ↩︎