Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Contemplative Life

"A life not examined is a life not worth living" - Socrates
"A life over-examined is a life not lived" - Mark Twain

Somewhere between these two quotes is a compromise that allows one to fully live life.   Those who spend every waking hour trying to "figure out" their life or their upbringing tend not to fully live it.  They obsess with naval-gazing and second-guessing and let life pass them by.

But on the other hand, there are others who are so caught up in their day-to-day existence that they fail to truly appreciate how precious - and ridiculous - life really is.

And one reason for both of these extremes is debt and poverty.   The man who struggles from day to day to make ends meet - whether it is the African trying to obtain sufficient calories to survive another day, or the American, trying to make enough money to pay his cell phone and cable bill - never has the time to really sit down and think about what life really means and what it is all about.

"Life is what happens while you are making plans" some folks like to say, and there is a modicum of truth to that.   Many folks are so obsessed with trying to "get ahead" that they fail to really appreciate life.   They work like dogs, eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week (or more) to have "things" that they think will fulfill their lives.  But they are really just running on a treadmill, trying to keep ahead of the bill collectors and stay ahead of their co-workers and neighbors.

One of the major revelations I had, when I chucked it all and decided to work part-time from a home office was how little work I needed to do in order to stay solvent and alive.   Once I decided I didn't really need a fancy car to impress the other people at the office, or whatever other social climbing criteria (the smart phone, the club tie, whatever) that people seemed to need, well, it turns out the amount of money you need to make to just live is rather small.

There was a small park near our home.  No one ever visited it, although the county mowed it every week and it looked nice.  I would go there after lunch, walk the dog and let her roam off the leash - there was never anyone in the park.  I would sit underneath an old oak tree and lean against it and just enjoy the nice weather - and feel guilty that I was "doing nothing" while my cohorts who stayed in the cubicle were hard and work and scheming against one another.

It literally took months to get comfortable with the idea that it was OK to spend an hour doing nothing, and what's more, it was OK to do so.   And once I felt comfortable with the idea that the wolves were not at the door, constantly demanding loan or debt payments, I could really live my life the way I wanted to.

We are in Northern Montana.  Boy is this a flat place.  But it has its own certain beauty.   What is interesting is the realization that I could, if I chose to, sell my house and live the rest of my life, simply doing nothing and living off my savings - and traveling in our RV.   It has a certain appeal, to be sure.   But people keep bugging me to work.  And a recent report in the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Society illustrates that the number of people entering my obscure profession is declining dramatically.  In other words, a lot of people are seeking out my talent, but very few have the talents to do the job.  I decided that I needed to double my rates.  Oddly enough, business increased.

But what I really cherish, above all, is the ability to sit down and think, for a change, about what life means and where it has lead me.  That is part of the impetus that got me started writing this blog.  Yes, it is about finances, but it is also about much more.   So many folks go through life looking at each stage in life in terms of what they can buy and how much they can borrow.  They keep "busy" at work and at make-work ("I have to do errands!  I am so busy!") that they drown out the deafening silence in their lives. 

Few people have the luxury, it seems, to really do what they want to do with their lives - or even have the time to think about what they would like to do.

For example, where do you live?  If you are like me, you lived most of your life in a place where you had to work to make a living.  The idea of choosing a place to live is just not in the cards.   And many folks, when faced with such a choice, freak out.    I live on a quiet island because I chose to do so.  There was no "job" for me here.  It was just a place with little traffic, decent weather, and a low crime rate.  So, why not?

But few of us have even that choice in life.  We are locked in, we think, to obligations and debt payments.  And for what?  A closet full of clothes and credit card debt?  A fancy cell phone and a cable plan?  A new car every three years?  A house which impresses everyone and yet no one?

The debt treadmill does serve one useful purpose.  It prevents one from really thinking about life and where it leads you.  Since one becomes so obsessed with making money and paying off loans and bills, one doesn't really have any time to think about where this all leads.   It serves to drown out the silence in our lives.

And I guess for most folks, that's enough.   But not for me.