At the risk of sounding trite, I am going to write a bit about being content with little. Feel free to tune out now if you’ve heard all this before. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard it all before too, usually in books that sell for twenty-six bucks a pop written by people who have multiple homes and earn six figures for showing up at speaking engagements and blathering about it for twenty minutes. I believe truth is truth even if the person speaking it isn’t exactly modeling it, but it’s definitely a bit harder to take advice about how to live simply from people who pay somebody else to do their shopping for them.
I’ve got all this money to spend and they just keep giving me more! I’m just one person, dammit!
I’m a freelance artist and writer, which means that, most of the time, my dreams about money usually involve a lot less “boy, I really wanna buy that gold-plated Lamborghini” and a lot more “boy, I really wanna buy groceries without putting them on the credit card”. And yet, every time I am about to release a new project for the potential consumption of the masses, there is a weasely part of me that elbows practicality aside and hisses, “Forget the gold plated Lamborghini! Go for the platinum! With champagne-filled tires! And a glove compartment Jacuzzi!!”
And don’t tell me they don’t make such things. They just haven’t made one yet.
Because no matter how pressing my practical money issues might be at any given time, I cannot seem to be content with merely satisfying them. There is some part of me that, no matter how happy I am with my current life, insists that real happiness is still out there, unfound, an undiscovered country unlocked only with the magical key of heaps and heaps of cashola. Popular culture might try to tell us that money isn’t the key to happiness– it’s all about family and friends and somehow sticking it to the selfish rich bastards who sleep alone on their cold, cruel piles of banknotes every night– and we all pretend to believe it. But how many of us, if offered a million bucks, would really say “nah. I’m good. Money doesn’t bring happiness. You know what brings happiness? Friends. Wanna be my friend? Awesome. Let’s go bowling. Bliss out.” No. I’m betting that when the wallet rubber meets the million-dollar-road, most of you (like me) would be jamming the pedal to the metal and heading off to the platinum-plated Lamborghini dealership. (How’s that for milking a driving metaphor?)
But still. Is it all true? Really?
Last night I watched a stand-up comedy routine starring a well-known comic. I don’t suppose he fits into the category of super-wealthy elite, but the guy’s had his own television show. He packs out venues with paying fans. He’s succeeded in a career where most people go ape-crazy with failure (and drugs, let’s not forget the crazy, crazy drugs). And you know what he talked about? He talked about how crappy life is. He blithely discussed his fears about death, despite how banal and pointless day-to-day existence is. And the audience laughed. Why? Because deep, deep down, beneath the part of us that’s hoping for a precious-metal-plated supercar, there’s another part of us that knows that money isn’t really the point.
We humans are just one big complex Big Mac of layers, most of which don’t really get along, and some of which we choose to ignore at all costs. It’s no fun thinking that heaps of moolah won’t actually bring happiness, because really, if that’s true, what are we cranking away at life for? Just to pay the bills and afford premium cable and keep driving the same old crapbox that doesn’t impress anyone? Nobody but nobody wants to accept that. But when we see a guy whose reached the top of the mountain (or at least gotten a good view of it) who still says life pretty much blows and the best we can hope for each day is not to die (yeah, he really said that, and we all laughed), it touches that truth deep inside us, the one that knows money is just a license to change the superficial circumstances of our lives, and the superficial circumstances don’t really mean anything.
A few weeks ago I tried to have a sleepover with my kids (Greer, six, and Zane, eight at the time). We camped out in the living room, me on the floor with blankets and pillows, them on the couch and chair. We talked about all sorts of stuff until very late, then I told them that if they didn’t go to sleep a monster would come and wreck up all their toys or something. Greer fell immediately to sleep. Zane shuffled around. I could hear him, shifting his feet on the couch, sliding them around under the covers. I looked up at him. He was simply sliding his feet back and forth, up and down, shifting them every ten seconds or so. Finally I asked him what in the world he was doing. Whispering, he told me that his feet kept getting hot. Therefore, logically, every few seconds he would move them to a cooler section of blanket. Of course, unfortunately, it was his feet themselves that were generating the heat, thus very quickly, the new section of blanket lost its cool and Zane had to move again, always seeking that elusive coolness.
And I, of course, told him to stop shuffling around and simply uncover his feet.
He did, smart boy that he is, and within a minute or two he was asleep.
And amazingly, it wasn’t until this morning that I realized Zane’s hot feet were an analogy for my attitude about money. You probably recognized it immediately, so bully for you smartie-pants, but for my own sake, I am going to spell it out.
Life is often uncomfortable. Metaphorically, my feet keep getting hot. And because I am raised in a commercial world where everything runs on money, it makes sense to think that money can provide the ultimate cure for my hot feet. Thus, I try to make as much as I can so that I can change my circumstances. I tell myself that buying stuff and impressing people will make me permanently content. And it works! For a little while. Pretty quickly, after changing my circumstances, those feelings of creeping discontent come back. Because like Zane’s hot little feet, my discontentment is self-generating. It is not dependent on circumstances. Changing the circumstances just distracts me for awhile.
So what’s the point, then? For Zane, the key was to get his feet out from under the blanket. He liked being under the blanket. He thinks that’s what people do when they go to bed. It took a bit of a leap for him to realize he could buck tradition, break the rules, and toss those comformist covers off his feet. What’s the equivalent for me and my attitude about moolah? How do I metaphorically stick my feet out from under the covers?
As unsexy as it sounds, maybe it’s just a day-to-day discipline of choosing to be happy where I am at. It isn’t hard. I am pretty happy. What do I have to complain about? Sure, I am still buying groceries with the credit card sometimes, and sure I am still driving around a hand-me-down Ford P.O.S., but I have a lovely wife who I still tend to think is the pinnacle of womanhood, I have a pair of kids that adore me and who I adore, I get to exercise my talents every day and get paid for it. I am healthy, only slightly balding, and generally perfectly delighted with simple, cheap pleasures (last night I giggled like a school girl over a plate of Tater Tots). How, really, could a platinum Lamborghini improve that?
That’s a rhetorical question. Don’t answer it.