Monday, January 21, 2013
Choosing the better part
It's an interesting sort of puzzle and I found myself being drawn in to try to figure it out myself. My first thought was that his old job gave him a sense of purpose. The more I talked to him, though, the more I thought it must be that his old job gave him a sense of status and superiority -- he complains about not flying first class anymore, not having preferred "status" with his airline and bank, and he talks all of the time about his degrees from very fancy schools, as if that should be all that is expected of him in life.
The other day he announced to me that he had solved the riddle of his unhappiness with the help of his therapist -- he "needs" to make a lot of money. Not to spend the money, he assured me (he lives a Spartan existence), but for the security. He assured me that his need wasn't any different than these people who feel like they need to spend a lot of money (why the need to legitimize?) and all he wanted was to have enough money so that he could pay people for life's necessities rather than relying on informal social contracts.
"Do you think there's also a sense of validation that you are worth a large sum of money?" I asked. "Or do you think there is some value in social contracts apart from the services or gifts you might receive? Do you think it might be better to just believe that people can be lovely and so it is no great shame that you are just the same as everyone else?"
He's a smart guy and a sceptic (not at all spiritual) so I focused on studies that have shown that one of the factors most correlated with life satisfaction are the number and quality of interpersonal relationships. He replied he is not most people, though, arguing that he is an introvert and that it is "really hard" for him to interact with people and consequently he doesn't like to. Then we talked for a bit about the difference between being true to the person he is day to day versus where he wants to end up in 20 years. Specifically, if he does become rich enough to replace social contracts with monetary ones, there will be less of an incentive to make or maintain relationships. Gradually that will become more and more true until he will (all the while acting completely rationally regarding his day to day preferences) end up 20 years from now with few connections to the human race. And is that where he wants to be?
I was reminded of a scripture that I never understood until recently. Jesus comes over to Martha's house for a meal. Mary, her sister, sits at his feet and is instructed by him until Martha complains, asking him to admonish Mary to help her with the preparations. Jesus rebukes her and says "one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." The implication is that Mary's focus is properly on the eternities while Martha is focused on preparing a meal that will soon be forgotten.
I used to not be able to think of my future except in terms of probabilities. I think this is true of a lot of teenagers, but it took me a long time to outgrow it -- not really until my 30s. Studying music helped -- having to plan ahead and invest in myself for a long term payout. I learned a lot more when I picked up gardening during an extended period of unemployment and self-introspection (basically when I started the blog). I learned that success (at least in my garden) was the product of dozens of small things that I did daily and even if did those things, catastrophe might still strike in the form of a frost or animal interference. Gardening was good for me to internalize both a sense of long term cause and effect and the knowledge that just because I put in the work didn't mean everything would necessarily turn out fine. If things worked out, I was happy. But I also learned to be happy that I had taken the chance, even when I didn't get the results I had hoped for.
I love beets, but I loved that garden more for what it taught me about myself and the world -- that I am like a garden, in a very Candide "we must cultivate our gardens" sort of way. And that I may be tempted to indulge in hundreds of impulses a day, but that I too can choose the better part that will lead to a more lasting life satisfaction. (And still have the immediate satisfaction of feeling like I'm choosing better than most.)