We had a plan.
Recently married. A senior administrator at a growing technology firm. A modest stock portfolio. A home owner – an adorable house in Washington, DC. Small, but pretty. The sort of house you live in until your kids start school. Before bailing to the suburbs. Chasing after better schools, community swimming pools and nearby soccer programs.
I made a spreadsheet. I plotted our planned financial growth, right into retirement. Best and worst case scenarios. Either way we were set – a life of wealth. Not mansion and horse farm wealth, but enough for antique furniture, gadgets, international travel, and a comfortable, early retirement. A step or three above where our parents settled out.
Eighteen years as a government contractor. Repeated success at implementing financial databases, and more importantly, creative, thoughtful proposal-pricing that helped my companies acquire new contracts. Susan, equally or more successful as a fundraiser for a large environmental non-profit.
There was no question that we were set. Educated, hard-working, respected. Pegged as the next leaders of our companies. Clearly upwardly-mobile, Yuppies personified. Until it all started to unravel. Or really, until we unraveled it.
(This image was stolen off of the internet)
Susan reduced her hours to part time. And I moved to a new company, one outside of the government contracting industry. And then we moved away all together. Out of DC. Out of the area. With our two year old daughter and a baby on the way, we fled city-life. It's luster long worn off. We moved to a small town in Pennsylvania.
An abrupt change in some ways. The time lapse between first toying with a move and listing our house measured in weeks rather than months. In other ways, a very slow process. I telecommuted back to DC for over a year. Susan consulted with DC non-profits considerably longer.
But the change continued. I found a local job with a non-profit community center. Susan switched careers, and became a massage therapist. These changes included a painful reduction in our income. Over the course of three or four years, our income dropped by more than half.
I no longer know where my spreadsheet is, and I don't really care. Barring a sizable lottery win (which we don't play) or inheriting a fortune from an unknown rich relative, our planned life of wealth is out of reach. We have become the bourgeoisie, the hoi polloi, our own little chunk of "the masses." Except we haven't. These phrases are often used pejoratively to describe material striving. A desire to improve one's financial situation, one's station in life. Improvements through the acquisition of stuff.
This isn't us. As we've settled into our small town life, we've switched focus. We've stopped looking for that better station. Study after study shows that wealth doesn't bring happiness, happiness and financial security are mutually exclusive. We're a solid middle-class family, and that should be enough. Instead of material gain, we are working towards contentedness. Or really self-improvement, which we believe will bring contentedness.
I don't want to give the impression that we sat down together and made a conscious decision to alter the focus of our life. It wasn't a holistic change. It was a sloppy and incremental, with lots of hand-wringing and second guessing. But what started as a series of questionable choices has solidified into an intentional life-style of actualization. A desire to understand ourselves and our world, or at least how we interact with the world. And the mark we leave on it.
Since I've known her, Susan has dabbled around the edges of Buddhist spirituality. An intense focus on mindfulness. She is interested in yoga and meditation, and a long-time participant in Tara Brach's Insight Meditation Community. Her interest became a practice, and that practice is now a daily way of life. She radiates a calmness that is not lost on those around her. It is part of what makes her a great massage therapist. She is also a great teacher for me. She lives what she learns, and I try to follow her example.
My path was less intentional and less obvious. In my twenties, I wanted to write for a fitness magazine. But there is a deep gulf between wanting something and doing anything about it. I enjoyed writing, I thought I had something to say, but I never wrote. My dream akin to a non-musical teen's plan to become a rock star.
A few years ago, I set aside two hours per week to sit in a local coffee shop and craft essays. Initially, these focused on society, and my disgust with the world around me. Resistance is Futile railing against intrusive technology. The Worst Generation unfavorably comparing my generation to those before.
One morning on a bike ride, I started composing an essay in my head. I found myself comparing my current life to a character in Jefferson Airplane's song, Lather. I had never written specifically about myself, my life. As Lather found its way onto my computer screen, I learned a bit about who I am. And I wanted to learn more. This launched two years of self-analytical writing that has left me a truly changed person (and a much better writer). Each time I caught myself obsessing about a problem, a fear, an incident in my past, I wrote about it. And each time I did this, I became more aware, more in control, and ultimately happier.
We all have our nagging thoughts, our obsessions. Our regrets, our grudges, our embarrassments, our fears. I saw a life-coach for a while during my career change. She recognized that I was a grudge-holder. She suggested I write down the negative thoughts I harbor from my past – those things I obsess over – and then stick them in a hole, burn them with gasoline. I never did this, but what I do is better for me. I spend time with those thoughts. My wife's Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach suggests that like the Buddha, we must face our problems. She tells a parable of the Buddha facing is principal rival. A figurative and literal demon named Mara. One of Tara's favorite sayings is 'invite Mara in for tea.'
By avoiding our demons, we never resolve anything. A head in the sand approach to life. Tara suggests that by confronting problems, insecurities, obsessions, we begin to understand them. I found myself doing this through writing. By intentionally spending time with the topics that bother me, by writing about them, meditating on them, analyzing them, by inviting them in for tea – I gain power over them. I gain an understanding of myself.
Two years later, two hundred thousand words blogged, almost entirely about me, I'm in a position to take stock, to reflect on my success. My problems aren't gone, but they have all improved. I am less obsessive. I'm no longer embarrassed by having Tourette's. I'm in control of my drinking. And I'm now more comfortable with the choices I've made throughout my life.
I'm certainly not done. Actualization is a life-long process. If the Buddha was correct, the work of many lifetimes. I'll surely continue to second-guess our life-choices. Retirement, though still off in the distance, is visible on our horizon. And before we get there, college tuition for our children. The wealth we haven't accumulated would be helpful over the coming years.
One of my father's favorite sayings is "you made your life, now you have to live it." Meaning there is no point in regret. The past is fact, it doesn't change. Look forward and make the most of it. And so far, no regrets for Susan and me. When we look to our future, the things we want don't cost money. We want intelligent, self-supporting children; jobs that help people; a space to create art; access to the outdoors for running, hiking, bicycling.
But mostly, we want to keep improving ourselves.