Living In A Material World
Four walls and a refrigerator
Recently I’ve been hard hit by some mess I’m going through with the IRS. I have been stung in several ways financially over my lifetime and this is my first world problem. My portfolio and life savings have essentially been halved over the past 7 months and I’m feeling the pain. Settling one more debt with the Feds has got me pissed. In the old Wall Street terminology, I’ve taken a bath. I got a haircut.
It’s easy to be Stoic for me. It’s an established habit I got from dealing with with suffering and death in the most rational way I could manage. The seeds were planted when I watched with intense interest in 2008. Back when people obsessed over the very existence of Glenn Beck, I watched his show once or twice in my corporate apartment in Redmond, WA. I was on my way to establishing a new office there for my company which was about to become a prime service contractor for Microsoft’s hot new enterprise software product. I learned a lot about how people behave when they calculate that they are about to become rich. At that same moment, experts were predicting that Wall Street might lose maybe $300 billion in value. The next week it was $600 billion. The next week Lehman Brothers collapsed. Within 6 months I discovered this Microsoft product was a bomb. Not bomb-diggity. Bomb tragedy.
I adjusted. I ditched the BMW and all BMW dreams and got an SUV. I’ve been driving it since 2009. I ruggedized my life. But there was death and suffering to come. I sit here quietly reflecting upon it. Back then I thought I had been through quite enough survival. I used to say there were four horsemen of the American male apocalypse. It was an undercount.
Child Custody Battle
I survived the first two and it cost me enough for a down payment on a house that today would be worth an obscene amount of money in this California market. That’s just an alternate hell, I suppose. I was only thinking about my own survival but even more challenges awaited. Cancer in the family. Death in the family. Tragedy and disappointment. Sorrow and frustration. Anomie’s thousand yard stare. I can hear my father’s voice as I sit here with my eyes watering, blurring up the LED display. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Go wash your face. Is that my voice or his?
The problem with saying money doesn’t matter is that sometimes it’s the only expression of will that we believe we have. Sometimes it’s the only expression of value that other people accept from us. Consequently it’s understandable to think that money is the only way we have of understanding how we fit in the world. The more debased our society becomes, the more we feel the need to hide away from it. If only we had the dosh. If we could only find a cabin in the woods, with indoor plumbing and heating. Near a fresh water stream. Just off the road. Not too far from town. Where English is spoken. And there’s a good hospital nearby, and…
So practically we try to raise our competence. Yet there is nothing quite so humbling as looking for a job which requires 10 years of experience and you’ve got 30. You realize that you know way more about something than anybody cares to pay you for. I’ve lived on that asymptote. I look around in wonder. Can this be all anybody cares about? Maybe I’m in the wrong industry. Maybe I’m in the wrong market. Maybe I’m just wrong. What is my net worth? What is my life worth? What is anything worth?
It will ultimately become frustrating to use material metrics to measure our life in this consumer economy. Even if we could actually finesse it, difficult questions remain. What level of comfort is necessary for sanity and what level lulls you into luxuriant complacency? Is life about eating that extra scoop of ice cream, or is life about not eating food that comes in a box? When I do my jumping jacks it clears my mind. Isn’t that just a form of escape?
It’s judgement. That’s what we face. We face the judgement of time, of an assessment of all we have become in the limited amount of time we have on this earth. On the left hand is our desire for what we believe we can achieve and what we deserve. On the right hand is a judgement. X amount is what you get. You’re at the antiques road show and the man looks at the stuff you’ve cleaned and polished, and you’re hoping that it’s really going to be good. You hope and you don’t hope at the same time. You don’t believe in fate, but you cross your fingers just the same. You want a happy surprise but you might just get hit by a truck. It doesn’t serve the soul to be a fatalist. Yet sometimes all we can comprehend about the world tells us to keep our guard up. Nobody wants to get sucker punched. Then again, nobody can predict quite enough.
Could I live in a spirit world? Could I abandon all care for merit? After all, when we accept the contractual world, when we accept that we will exchange time and effort for money and respect we do honor to the angels of rational merit. It’s enough to have such angels in your neighborhood. Nobody wants to shoot threes against Steph Curry. Nobody wants a global meritocracy. Then again, I do get happy when I know I’ve done right by the algorithms of FICO.
Last night, waiting for my bowl of chili to heat up, I watched another episode of CineFix Top 10s. This one was about Indie films. There’s an annoying twinge in the hipster cosmopolitan mendacity of the narrator’s voice. When you watch a couple years of this stuff, you can pretty much predict what their main critics are going to say. Yet this particular episode contradicted itself in a surprisingly self-deprecating fashion, out of character for their ordinary humblebrag. It showed me a few films worth watching I’d vaguely been aware of. Hmm. That’s new.
Discovery is a byword for this publication. Since I am fundamentally curious, I am addicted to discovery. So much so that I would even go Conservative just to stave off benders of eclectic overload. I photograph everything. Thank the angels of merit who perfected digital photography or I’d be a Fotomat groupie in debt to Kodak film. Even in this material world, even in the spirit world, there are always discoveries and surprises. Here is our vulnerability. We must confess our vulnerability to judgement. The hard part is accepting the downside. The difficulty is keeping your eyes clear when serendipity is cruel, when Wall Street, Cryptowatch and the IRS are telling you in no uncertain terms that you are not so much as you thought you were. When you ignore your bathroom scale because ignorance is bliss. When you dull your senses because everything around you is ugly. Now you’re trapped. Trapped in your inability to engage reality. You are your own jailer. Know that at the far end of that tunnel lies suicide. Hopefully you’ll have enough depression to know you’re knee deep in it when you bury your head under the pillow for 36 hours…
In discovery we get the opportunity to rewire ourselves, additive to our psyche, more flavors of soup for the soul. It takes courage, to hope and not to hope at the same time. To know that whatever your desires are today, you might see something this evening that makes you change tomorrow. The possibilities are always in us because as much as we confess that we know ourselves, we never fully do. That is why judgement surprises us, because as human beings we are vessels of spirit recreated in common with other humans. When we discover new combinations of situations, ourselves and others we can change. We could freeze. We could withdraw. We could fight. Or maybe we can roll with the punches for a 3 minutes, rest up and try to survive another 3. After enough of this, the soul gets deep. It survives beyond what you thought yourself capable of.
Discipline is greater than inspiration.
Everybody loves the sunshine. You can’t just stay indoors waiting for a sunny day to go outside and caper and prance around the park. That’s not how your soul grows deeper. You have to just go there because it’s time. Because you decided to go, regardless. Because it’s your habit to go. So when the letter from the IRS comes, you have to get into the habit of opening it. When your drunk nephew bangs on your door at 11 at night, you have to get into the habit of opening it. When your mind doesn’t have an immediate and comfortable answer to a perverse problem, you have to get into the habit of opening it. You cannot wait for inspiration. You must commit to the right discipline and grind. An early start beats fast running.
The Material World
It cannot be avoided. It can be rewarding. It can be destructive. It obeys the laws of physics which we don’t fully understand. Evolution does not have foresight. You either survive or you don’t. You must accept the unknown, the contingent, the not-quite-sure-what-that-is. Not to be random, but to become ready for the black swan, the bolt from the blue, the ‘well I never’. Don’t faint like a goat. Say I can’t believe you just said that to me. Really? It’s like that now? Wow. I’m completely unprepared. But I tell you what… Then be stoic. Now you have a real new situation to deal with. Surprise. Or maybe, even better, no surprise.
PS. The corporation I work for has just agreed to be acquired. Stock doubled in after hours trading. It’s like that now.