Stepping back from being “a have” just for having’s sake.
“Where’d you get it?”
“The thrift shop.”
“Sharp. Going somewhere?”
“I’ve got a job interview.”
In case any of you haven’t heard “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ infectious ode to hipster frugality – this isn’t it. However, while the pages of men’s glossies sell ‘chronographs’ for seven thousand dollars to megalomaniacs, the song espouses an exuberant and economical sensibility for the conscious man rocking the Casio.
It’s a conversation we’ve all had, with various folks. “What do you do for work?” they ask. I’ve been a cook and a clerk, a farmhand and a fruit-picker, a landscaper, a carpenter, and a traveler through it all. I worked hard at those jobs, but they weren’t careers. Nor were they lucrative. But as an English major who read more Jack Kerouac than John Keynes, those were the jobs I could get, and they served the purpose of subsidizing my volunteer internship at Takin’ A Look Around, d/b/a.
I’ve gotten a lot of rolled eyes in response, followed swiftly by lectures on bear markets and money-makes-the-world-go-round. They ask my why I haven’t gone out and gotten a real job, and I explain that I’d rather be doing this. Others just chuckle and tell me how they miss those days and would give anything to live that way again.
A minute is money, for those keeping count in these times of time-affluence. After one of my extended travels, an old friend picked me up so we could catch up over lunch. As we drove in his muscular new pickup, I described to him all the places I’d been. After a while he asked me how I managed it. I replied, “Doesn’t cost much to hitchhike, and I’ve got all the time in the world to enjoy it.” I was referring to the generosity of those who offered me a ride, the connection made between two people on a path, the deep truths some people were only waiting for a stranger to tell…for me these serendipitous experiences became a source of faith in human kindness and magic, and made me feel like the inheritor of an uncountable abundance.
That’s not to say there wasn’t red ink. My shame was acute when my pal pulled in to the restaurant and proceeded to pay for both his meal and mine. I covered the tip, and hoped the server would have lots of other tables. There was no way for me to share my richness with her, much less to show her that I valued her work. It’s not that I expect others to provide for me – if nobody pulls over, I walk. However when my lifestyle choices affect my ability to interact with the world in the way that I want, I question my decisions to live without savings, to book the 2 day bus trip instead of the 4 hour flight, to buy the cheapest bottle of red. I’ve chosen time over money as my primary currency. Someday it’ll catch up to me.
Today I wake up, soon to be thirty years old, and compare myself to my press-pant, 9-to-7, down-payment-making peer. In one of the stories I tell myself, I cringe at how far behind him I’ve fallen: he pays down his mortgage, has a smartphone with all the whizzbang, and favors the clubs where you pay for a $16 martini with a twenty, and leave the change.
Meanwhile I rent a room, drive dad’s old beater, and use my pre-paid phone to call the bank to increase my credit limit. If I were in the market for a long-term mate to look after me and the litter, Mr. Mutual Fund would have more than that seven thousand dollar chronograph on his arm. Hey baby, I’m broke! Wanna dance?
This story clearly isn’t just personal; from evolutionary imperatives for control of resources to ego-stroking advertising campaigns selling luxury sedans, every generation of men has been bombarded with the message that their primary value is material, resource-based, monetary, and that they should be competing with each other on those grounds. I hope that, as men become more self-aware, we’re letting go of that limiting belief.
That being said, given that elections have been won and lost on the unemployment rate (with a current crisis in youth employment in particular), my intention isn’t to downplay the real struggles facing those who are jobless against their will, or to advocate for the lost art of skiving. It is my humble intention to respond to my society’s fascination with being “a have” just for having’s sake.
George Orwell examines this predominating focus on finance through the character of Gordon Comstock, the able if unambitious anti-hero of Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Comstock spurns what he views as the world’s obsession with money by working a low-paying dead-end job and living in a miserable flat. Gordon has few possessions besides a worn set of clothes, some doomed pages of poetry, and a tortured yet resilient aspidistra house plant. Throughout the novel, Gordon allows money, or his lack of it, to poison his relationships and very nearly crush his spirit. In the end what saves him is the love of his sweetheart Rosemary, who sees in Gordon an underlying richness of character undiminished by his poverty.
Rosemary lies with Gordon at the point of his deepest despondency and becomes pregnant, after which the protagonist is rejuvenated into an energetic provider and participant in society.
Wondering whether Gordon simply sold out his principles, and whether I would do the same, I came upon the passage of Mark 12:17, in which Jesus responds to a question of whether it was right for the Jews to pay taxes to Rome. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s,” everybody’s homeboy replied. In other words, though Gordon relented in his defiance of material culture, ultimately he did so in the spirit of a greater integration with his love, his life, and the world. And he kept the aspidistra.
Seeing through the form of things and recognizing the spirit that flows through them is a formidable task in itself. I look back at my friend with his shiny new truck, his house and his toys, mortgage wrapped like a tie around his neck; he has his struggles, and I didn’t acknowledge that before. Actually, I’m impressed with how well he bears them. As I am with how I bear mine.
I only stifle myself by defining my value in contrast to the apparent forms of others’. Relinquishing this comparison between us allows an exuberant joy to emerge, an exhilarating freedom that comes simply from recognizing what I sincerely value. My father, a family doctor who’s only ever had one job, tells me his most valued possession is the freedom to do what he wants with his life. Whereas in the past I’ve carried shame around my relative vagabondery, upon hearing my father’s words I felt more proud of the work I’ve done to cultivate that freedom, on my own terms.
I use a job to pay for things – it’s my work that makes me rich. Anyone who values their own great work is the inheritor of a vast prosperity. That richness is what we offer in love, friendship, and increasingly in business philosophy. So if that cutie at the bar isn’t impressed by your chronograph, just show her what you can do on the dance floor – the trick I’ve learned is to keep your own time.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons