Can’t Get No

December 5, 2012 § 7 Comments

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I was chatting with a friend the other night about family and money and work and all the other minutia of our lives when he asked if perhaps my writing on this site wasn’t a little too “self-satisfied.”

After I got over my initial alarm (because really, who wants to be perceived as self-satisfied, which is arguably only a half-rung down the ladder from “smug”?), I got to thinking about what it means to be self-satisfied, and whether or not that’s a bad thing.

At the risk of confirming my friend’s suspicions, let me be clear: I am satisfied. Not always, and not with every single aspect of my life and character, but in a general, over-arching sense, I am content. I suppose one could take this a sign of lassitude, and at times it seems to me an almost anti-American sentiment: We are not supposed to be merely satisfied, or content. We are supposed to strive, to compete, to conquer, for how else can we exemplify the rule of American exceptionalism? Hell, to be merely satisfied… what am I, a socialist (or at the very least, Canadian)?

Still, the truth is, my sense of self-satisfaction is a work in progress and has arisen only out of allowing myself a degree of time and introspection that I understand to be a great privilege. I remember something my friend Erik told me a couple of years back; we were skiing deep in the woods of northern Vermont, and I’d asked Erik, who lives a life of deep principle, based largely on his belief that the natural world should not be merely appreciated, but revered, how he made certain that his choices in life reflect his prevailing ethos. (It is maybe worth noting that Erik lives on about $6,000 annually, and yet seems to me one of the most contented people I’ve ever met; his network of friends and family and community is incredibly diverse and rich, and his capacity to fully experience the small pleasures of life has been an inspiration to me. He is also the main character in my upcoming book, SAVED).

This is what he told me: “I mediate a lot of my experiences through a judgment: ‘Is this the way I want to live my life?’”

Is this the way I want to live my life? It’s such a simple and even obvious question, really. And yet I’m fairly certain it’s not a question most people ask with great frequency. At least, it wasn’t a question I asked very often, if ever. Is this the way I want to live my life? I often wonder how many people’s lives would be changed for the better if they’d only ask themselves that very question.

I have been enormously fortunate in that it has not been difficult for me to find a path that is satisfying. Likewise, Penny and I serendipitously made choices along the way – long before I ever asked myself how these choices might answer Erik’s question – that have allowed us a tremendous degree of freedom and privilege. The absence of debt is perhaps the most profound. Just as I wonder how many people’s lives would be changed for the better if only they’d ask themselves is this the way I want to live my life, I wonder how many people are simply afraid to ask it, knowing that their financial circumstances ensure they won’t be able to answer it in a way that feels good. That is satisfying.

If all of this sounds as if I have no doubts or insecurities, you can rest assured that I have many. As of this very moment, I am struggling to determine what is next for me, career-wise. I am on-again, off-again worried that the skills and opportunities we are providing our boys are not doing enough to prepare them for a world that seems to be evolving in an entirely different direction. I loathe my inability to remain organized. I worry that our decision to eschew accumulated monetary wealth is going to someday bite us in the ass, and hard.

Still, I have come to a place in my life where I do not need to know everything: My boys’ future. My future. I can even accept my many flaws of character, although that doesn’t mean I’m not working to correct them (you oughtta see my office… clean as a freakin’ whistle. For today, anyway). Is one of those flaws that I’m self-satisfied? Maybe. But I’m not convinced yet.

§ 7 Responses to Can’t Get No

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    And why should being self satisfied be wrong or your self satisfaction be suspect? I think the lack of satisfaction displayed by our population is wrong or a symptom that things are out of sync with what is real. Perhaps anyone questioning your self satisfaction is just a tad jealous of your ability “to thine own self be true”.

  • maggiemehaffey says:

    Your comment that being debt free as an important element to your satisfaction is the key, and you’re right, so many people are trapped by our culture’s drive that pushes us to mindlessly possess more things, oh, and you can pay later. And pay, and pay and pay…You are also lucky, as you say, that your choices led you to this place even before you realized what you were choosing exactly. We don’t get to know what the future will bring, or if there will be any future at all. We only have this moment. Which is not to say we should be like the grasshopper and make no plans, but that we should not be consumed by them. (I just wroted “consumered” which would have been apt…)

  • ncfarmchick says:

    Thank you somuch for these frequent posts lately! Love them. This one reminds me so much of my grandfather who lived well into his 90s. He alwyas said he was happy because he didn’t want anything and was content. This was in direct opposition to what he saw every day in his work at a savings and loan. People were always wanting more, more, more. His father was a banker, also. But, when the Depression hit, they moved from town back to the family farm. My grandfather said he never understood how badly times were for most people because they had plenty of food and things to do and never thought they were lacking anything. I think about this all the time and realize that being content is considered by some to be lazy. You’re always supposed to be striving for more, wanting more, working toward more. I don’t think that is necessarily wrong but the “more” in question does not have to be things but experiences and insights that make your life richer than any posession ever could. Thanks again, Ben, for bringing these thoughts to mind. Looking forward to your upcoming book!

  • I’m pretty satisfied being Canadian…just sayin’ ;). Seriously, I get what you’re saying here. The best any of us can do is to live out our values on a daily basis, like your friend Erik. It takes quite a bit of integrity and guts to answer the “is the way I want to live my life” question with honesty and without prevarication. As you say, many of us don’t have the choice due to finances to answer that question in the larger sense the way we would like to, but I believe that we could all do it in the tiny simple ways, and it would build if we stuck to it, like building a nest egg of savings with a penny jar. Whatever else your boys will take into their adult life from their childhood, they will be physically strong, resourceful, resilient and the kind of people who just “git ‘er done”. Those are huge advantages in any kind of world, and if they need skills you’re not providing in their upbringing, they have what it takes to reach out and get those skills under their belt. They, unlike many kids, are going to enter adulthood with the idea that how you live life is more important than how much you earn, that doing a job doesn’t mean the job is your life. How do the boys see you? I bet they don’t define you as a writer – more probably as Dad, the guy who tells great stories, who can skin a squirrel, who swears when fixing the truck, who is always up for a trek through the woods, who doesn’t have a lot of patience with whining, who always wins in tickle fights, who makes them eat wierd things and sometimes good things…and endless list of things they see you as, that are how you live your life, not your job.

  • Anne-Lise says:

    If anything, I’d say it’s more a virtue than a flaw!
    Sad to see how society teaches us to be ashamed of (self)satisfaction!
    It takes vulnerability and courage to live a life off the grid. And if, next to the doubts it sometimes brings, you can feel strongly how ‘right’ it is for you to live your life that way, then why would it not be a good thing to be satisfied with it? With your life, your self? Your sense of satisfaction is certainly apparent in the joy, enthousiasm, appreciation and wonder with which you describe your life and I love that! That is exactly what makes me come back to this space, as it is so inspiring to get a sense of how happy you are with living your chosen life! Never censor that, it’s worth so much!
    (And damn how challenging it is to practice what I preach here, haha! ;)

    Anne-Lise
    The Netherlands

  • Jeannie says:

    Amen Brother Ben, you’re preaching to the choir. Love all the frequent posts. Just got “Making Supper Safe” can’t wait to hunker down with it over the weekend.

  • Sue says:

    love reading all of your posts.

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