An old Yiddish proverb goes:
If you have nothing to lose, you can try anything
I was thinking about this today after talking to a friend who was quite distraught over the state of the economy and his low amount of incoming work. He needs to maintain projects and billing at a pretty high rate just to keep his financial life in place and meet all of his obligations. I asked if he wanted to go out to dinner this week and he told me that really, he couldn’t, he was “broke”. When I told him I was surely the far more broke of us two, he assured me that he was the more destitute. Being quite sure that he generates many times my income, this could only be true in the sense that he has far more to lose than I, and that he is freaking out about losing his multiple mortgages and style of living to which he has become accustomed. And he is not the only one. I have other friends who are likewise entrenched in a certain level of material comfort that they are hell bent and determined to maintain, seemingly for its own sake.
With each passing day it seems, I continue to be thankful that I have so few possessions compared to so many in this country. I mean, I don’t feel deprived of anything (except health care, but I should have that taken care of soon). I really don’t. I go out to eat and drink with friends quite often, I have a roof over my head and easy transportation. I have a gym membership and Internet access and a laptop. I read books and watch movies and meet people. I drink coffee, I take strolls. And of course, I travel. Out of the possessions I have, they could all be destroyed in a fire or taken in a theft and it really would be no big deal.
I keep returning to this theme since I have been back, because I am confronted with it everywhere. The more things people aquire, the more worried they are about protecting them. The more worried they are about losing them. The more stressed out they are about maintaining a certain level of income to be able to support all these things. At my current billing rate, I will make about a third of the money that I made when I was VP of Technology, but I can honestly say that I am orders of magnitude less stressed than I was when I had that position. I also have a great deal more freedom in my schedule. If I feel like working today, I will. If I feel like taking part or all of the day to go to a museum or read or stroll or meditate, I will. The things I have “given up” to be in this way are not in any way necessities of life. I do not “need” expensive clothes, a multitude of gadgets, or excessive displays of wealth. I live very well indeed without owning one or more houses or cars. I feel a great freedom to try new things, consider any life changing option whether it relates to the kind of work I do, the place I do it, who I do it with or how. People often ask me if things are less exciting now that I am no longer traveling. But to be honest, I still feel pretty much how I did while I was traveling. I don’t feel settled or tied to this particular thing or place, but neither do I feel a need to be constantly moving somewhere else.
There are a vast array of potential reasons for our conspicuous consumption, or the acquiring of vast amounts of things well outside basic need or comfort. We acquire them for reasons of status, to show others how important we are. We acquire things out of a false sense that they will make us safe and secure. We do so because in our consumer culture if we do not acquire, we are not participating in the organizing principle of our society. We acquire to fill the loneliness and to pass the time. But is more stuff really the answer?
I am not in principle opposed to having any of these things, but in anything that generates great feelings of attachment there is a danger. Buddhist teaching sure has that part right anyway. They teach that our unhappiness comes from our attachments to some things on the one hand, and our aversion to others on the other hand. Of course, grasping is very much at the core of what it means to be human, and no amount of conditioning or meditation will or should wipe away the sensual responses that are central to who we are. It is the greatest gift to be born into existence, all of it. But we strive so much to contain the uncontainable, instead of appreciating the breathtaking thing our very existence is and sharing it with others. We should be able to enjoy the experiences we have without needing them to continue. In short, we should be striving for being, not having.