I have often heard that the richer man is the man that lived a full life of adventure and experiences. I’ve read it in fancy quotes on Facebook and Pinterest, seen it spilled across pages of books, heard it sung in syllables of songs, and watched it play out in the story lines of movies.
Recently, I also heard over my shoulder talk of retirement savings, investing, working hard to secure a future of ease. And I found myself stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between my heart and my mind, trying to understand if we (John and I) had made irreversible mistakes, or if delayed gratification is truly just a false dichotomy. And if it is not, was there any option left for us to follow this path of personal limit-setting that has always eluded us.
I have always leaned towards living life while I have it, to the fullest of my ability, financial or otherwise. I have never saved money, not that I ever had much to save. I spent all I had in the pursuit of happiness – never on “things“, always on experiences – never feeling like financial freedom was a position to aspire to, but that freedom from regrets was life’s lesson.
While everyone around us repeated the words “Life is too short” as a vital soliloquy, we went one step further and allowed that powerful fact to guide our everyday living. Sure, for the first part of my adult life it was a reckless response to life’s pain of my past, but as I aged it became a way to understand the world. Then my son was born with a defective heart, and the hopeless and empty feeling of not knowing how long he would have with us strengthened our resolve to enjoy our lives with him, to help him savor however much life he had ahead of him.
From that moment, the words “Life is too short” were engraved on my heart.
We have spent any money we have had to bring laughter and warm memories to our children’s lives; any money gained, earned, or inherited went to these endeavors. Dance lessons, skiing, concerts, plays, cruises, Disney adventures, year-long drives across continents. All the while thinking we were teaching them a fundamental lesson; to enjoy the moment, before the moments end.
Then one day, an adult friend deplored me to think about my financial future. I was reminded that we do not own stocks, bonds, or a home. We have no “safety net”. So I asked myself, “Did we do things wrong?”
I spent the next two years trying to build a safety net. A little was put away, but not enough to allay the fears that had been deposited in the back of my mind about “our future”. While I told myself that we shared a wonderful life of memories with our children that could not be replaced by fancy cars and bigger homes, those proclamations to my own peace-of-mind were overpowered by the fear that we had made a vast mistake. After all, not many people followed the path we had chosen; very few, in fact. So did that mean our path was the wrong one?
As I sat late in my office one evening, I glanced out the window to see the sun going down, realizing this meant I had yet again passed the dinner hour while still at my desk. I stopped and looked out the window, watching the speckling of lights coming on sporadically in tower windows across the city, and a light went on in my own head. I realized that over the past two years I had drifted away from my children; I could not bring to memory the last time we had even spoken more than a passing hello. I tried to shrug it off, but a day or two later, as we were eating dinner, Jorden remarked on his life expectancy, and that nagging feeling was back.
And in that moment, a deep melancholy entered my heart.
The feeling of regret was crushing. Regret that I had wasted two years of my children’s lives not sharing my life with them. That night I lay awake most of the night, pondering my children’s ages and how soon their independence would take them from the grasp of my arms and my home. I realized I had been swayed from my own life purpose by an idea planted by our culture, society, and the “wanters” of the world, an idea that I needed “things” to feel comfort, an idea that was cleverly just out of reach, like a carrot dangled in front of me as I moved faster and faster on that treadmill of working life, never really getting anywhere important, reaching no destination. I realized that in trying to provide something monetary, I was losing the embrace of shared joy and experiences that “living in the moment” had afforded me and my family. We were no longer providing real moments for our children, whose lives need to be filled with experiences, not money. Experiences that I always felt needed to be found now, not later when we don’t know what later will bring, or how much “later” we really have.
After feeling that one moment of deep regret about two years of my life spent on a hamster wheel, I decided that while our path may be a mistake, that we may not be following the most responsible of avenues for our future, I did not want to feel that regret again, and certainly not the weight of a lifetime of regret. Living life as we do is our safety net, it is what makes my family happy, and that happiness can’t be traded in when life approaches its end. And the timing of that end can not be planned.
I will continue to take notice of the world. I will continue to teach my children to notice the moments that surround them. I will return to listening to my heart. I will be thankful for what is, instead of wishing for what I don’t have. I will show my children everything I can possibly show them. I will share everything I can share, quite possibly at the expense of retirement travel and security, or retirement at all. Because I refuse to wake up one day as a senior to ask myself why I chose money and ‘things’ over time with my children.
Because I welcome poverty over regret.