Last week I knocked back a day of teaching to have lunch with an old friend. I’ve known Max since Evan26 was Evan2. Back in those days I was struggling to keep my head above water financially, while Max was single, with only one son who lived primarily with his mother. In other words, his paycheque was his own to do with as he would.
Max likes to socialise by going out for meals, so back in those days he’d sweep me off for dinner every now and then and I’d have the (rare to me) pleasure of eating a meal not cooked for the tastebuds of toddlers. Our lives have always been very different.
Max is really into Eastern religion, meditation and yoga. He travels widely, usually to sunny, warm places where he can soak up the sun and relax. It seemed to me that he was out and about nearly every day of the week, going to parties, dinners and lunches, which was a vast contrast to my life of being stuck at home with my 4 small boys all the time. Delayed gratification was never a thing he was a fan of, whereas to me, it was all I had to hope for.
Fast forward twenty-five years.
The four kids I was raising on my own are now off my hands, (pretty much.) All of them are living productive, creative lives and two are settled with long-term partners. I’ve reached financial independence and now, after decades of being tied to staying at home with the family while they were young, I’m now finally free to travel and spend my days how I choose.
I’m happy. I’m turning 60 next week and I’m looking forward to the next delicious stage of my life.
Max has now retired at 69 years of age. He’s on the Aged pension, living in a unit he’s paying off. He lives with his son, who is now 40 and is a recovering heroin addict. Max would love to sell or rent out his unit and live overseas in a warm climate, living off the proceeds of the sale or rent. However, he’s stuck, because his son has nowhere else to go because he’s unable to work.
Max has chosen to remain pretty much computer-illiterate. This has left him as an easy mark, which some woman found out when she scammed him out of 16K recently over the phone. Why does this happen to people who can least afford it?
He knows that he’s left it very late to improve his finances and he’s flailing around, trying to put things in place to produce an income for the future.
He put a few grand into cryptocurrency, which of course he doesn’t understand.
He’s excited about the 20% per MONTH returns that he’s been promised. I asked him if he personally had seen returns like this. The night before we met for lunch, he received his first dividend payment, so he thought, “Oh, this works,” so he put in another 10K. I thought, ‘Isn’t this a classic way they reel people in?‘ He said that the woman he works through has just under 1 Billion US dollars that she’s looking after. I thought, ‘If that’s true, why would she be interested in your piddly 10K???”
He also paid 5K to do a course in currency trading, which after he joined he realised happens on computers, which he hates and has no idea how to start using, so he’s letting a friend do the coursework. They plan to split any profits the friend ends up making.
He’s fearful of the future and is clearly envious of what has happened in my life. There were a few remarks here and there with references to investments etc. that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. He sounded almost bitter at times about how his life is looking, especially compared to mine.
It’s as if someone has flipped the coin of our lives and we’ve swapped sides.
“You’ve done really well, Frogdancer,” he said as we were eating. “You don’t have to work and … you’ve got excellent karma. You deserve it all. But… (he sighed), I’m not happy. I feel like I’m trapped and I wish… I wish I’d done things differently.”
I was telling this to Ryan28 when I got home. He’s picked up my frugal, valuist ways and he was nodding sagely. Then I asked him a question:
“If Max and I had each died at say… 45, who would you say had the better life?”
“Huh,” Ryan28 said, struck. He thought for a second, then said, “Max. He would have had the better life.”
“Exactly,” I said. “The whole thing’s a gamble. If we were able to know how long we’ve got, we could plan things out. But obviously, it doesn’t work that way. He enjoyed life when he was younger, whereas I’m enjoying it more as I’m older. It’s that whole Grasshopper and the Ant fable.
“The ant is busy putting things in place for the future, while the grasshopper just mucks around, enjoying the present. It’s all wonderful for the ant if he lives long enough to enjoy the wintertime when he can enjoy the fruits of his labour. But what if he gets stepped on and squashed just before winter hits? He’s toiled his whole life for no reward. Whereas, the grasshopper may starve to death in winter, but he’s had one hell of a happy life up until then. It all depends on how long you live.”
“I guess it’s all about balance,” said Ryan28. “Working the future but doing fun things now.”
I thought it was an important thing for Ryan28 to think about. He and I are probably too much inclined to practice delayed gratification. I want him to live his life while he’s young! (To be fair, so far it’s worked bloody brilliantly for me, but that’s not a guaranteed outcome for everyone.)
Getting back to when we were sitting at lunch, Max looked so defeated and sad. I leaned forward and said, “Yes, I’m in a really good spot right now. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned: it’s that life is a series of waves. You’re up and everything is going fine; then something happens and you’re sliding down.
“At the moment, I’m up and you’re down. But something will happen, either to me or the kids, and I’ll slide down that curve. You’re down, but something will happen and you’ll be on the upward swing again. I’m really conscious of that, so when I’m in a good spot, like now, I consciously enjoy it. because I know that it’s not going to last. I may as well enjoy it while I can!”
This appealed to Max and he brightened up and started talking about how Eckhart Tolle talks about similar ideas. I haven’t read any Tolle but Max is right into it. This put him in a better frame of mind and we chatted happily until he dropped me back at home.
I found it an interesting thought experiment. We in the FI/RE community are so good at delayed gratification. I think I’m the Queen of it, myself! And it’s mostly a very good thing. However, changing one thing that we all have no control over and looking at life through a different lens… sometimes a bit of immediate gratification along the way might also be a very good thing.
We only have “one wild and precious life.” We have to make choices based around immovable things that we have no control over. Due to my situation with raising 4 boys on my own, I was relentless about working for the future to provide the financial security for my family that we didn’t have. I had to consciously teach myself how to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the little things in life as they happen. I envy the people who seem to be born with a foot in both camps.
So who has lived the better life? As Ryan28 said, if you look at the early part of our lives, Max definitely comes out on top. I hope and believe that, when we look at our lives through the lens of another couple of decades of living, that we’ll both be happy with the paths we’ve taken.
Here is the poem that I found that quote from, in the paragraph above. I love it:
THE SUMMER DAY by Mary Oliver.
|Who made the world?|
|Who made the swan, and the black bear?|
|Who made the grasshopper?|
|This grasshopper, I mean–|
|the one who has flung herself out of the grass,|
|the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,|
|who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —|
|who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.|
|Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.|
|Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.|
|I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.|
|I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down|
|into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,|
|how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields|
|which is what I have been doing all day.|
|Tell me, what else should I have done?|
|Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?|
|Tell me, what is it you plan to do|
|With your one wild and precious life?|