For most of 2016 (and really, for most of the past 20+ years), I’ve been pondering my future: who I want to be, what I want to do, where I want to live. Pondering one’s future is not an easy task because it requires a person to review their past as they plot their next steps. Pondering the future takes time and energy; time and energy that may be devoted to other pursuits.
In fall 1997 or 1998, Outside Magazine ran an article with the 100 things to do to have a successful life. The activities I remember include: getting marooned on an island (and escaping a week later), bungee jumping, and spend a night in the Sahara. I’ve tried, with no luck, to locate the original article (update: Here is the article, sent to me by a reader). Every few years Outside compiles a new, though similar, list.
It must have been fall 1998, because I was dating my high school girlfriend at the time. Anyway, Outside Magazine inspired my 17-year-old self to write my own list for a successful life. I spent a teenage eternity of four hours developing my own life-list. Only 48 goals could spill out of my mind in those hours, but I remember reviewing the list and feeling good about the direction of my life.
The notebook got lost as I moved from home to college, then college to my permanent residence, but one goal really stuck with me: “Be respected in life”.
I wrote those simple words as a 17-year old because of two events that greatly affected me. I will try to condense those stories here:
- When I was 12, my grandfather died unexpectedly. As the story goes, at the service one of my grandfather’s friends mentioned my grandfather’s height – he was 5’6″. Astonished, another of his friends disputed the fact stating “Bill [my grandfather] must have been taller!”
- A high-school teacher of mine did his best to mingle with the high-school kids. He tried to be ‘cool’. At this point, I am unable to recall specifics, but rather than elevate the students to an adult level, he lowered himself to the student’s level. As an adult, I’m now aware this particular teacher was experiencing some personal stresses at the time, but this ‘lowering’ behavior disturbed me.
Combined, these two stories demonstrated to me the type of person I wanted to become. I instinctively knew the ability to elevate others, as my grandfather did, took steadfast personal energy while lowering oneself, as the teacher did, required no energy.
My original journal surfaced a year ago. Rereading the writing of a 17-year old, the clarity of the 17-year old’s vision astounded the 34-year old. The list included not only activities: see Mt. Everest from base camp; go skinny dipping; and see a full moon from each continent, but also lifetime milestones: get married; start a family; never stop learning. The day I reread the list, I checked off nearly one quarter of the entries.
I realized, of the activities I had accomplished, the more difficult the activity the more satisfying the memories. Wendell Berry alludes to this in his book The Unsettling of America. While Berry does not outright say “difficult work leads to satisfying memories”, he does argue for a return to a more settled, agrarian society rather than the fragmented, unsettled, city-based society we have today. Yet he acknowledges that the work he advocates for is not easy and maybe not even enjoyable on a granular scale. However, when taken in its entirety the work is satisfying.
All of my farmer friends confirm Berry’s thesis.
A minuscule ebb tide of people from cities to agrarian wilds exists today. Authors such as Wendell Berry and Ben Hewitt actively pursue this lifestyle. Others, such as The Frugalwoods, want more meaning out of life, so they leave cities such as Cambridge, MA to head to rural locations.
A pall of dissatisfaction hangs over America today. We are wealthy and the work is easy, but neither appear to bring satisfaction. Yes, a growing rift between the wealthy and poor does exist in this country, yet some of the most satisfied people I know do not live on the wealthy side of the rift. Farmers, sawyers, and contractors predominate this satisfied-but-not-wealthy clique on the ‘have not’ side of the rift (which begs the question: What does it mean to ‘have’ or ‘have not’?).
What do all of these people have in common that a large portion of the US seemingly does not?
These farmers, sawyers, and contractors embrace hard work and the satisfaction that follows. In his book Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World (a spectacular read if you haven’t already), Ben Hewitt discusses both the struggles as well as the satisfaction of a hard-work life.
I have trouble explaining why I enjoy lifting a 120-pound drum sander out of my car only to give myself gnarly road rash on a Saturday morning, but I do. Is it easy to elevate people as my grandfather did? No, but my grandfather did so and based on conversations about him, he led a satisfied life. My farmer friends would “absolutely not trade the financial and physical hardships of this life” for easier work and a larger paycheck.
The older I get, the more I am convinced the answer to the riddle is simply “Just because it’s hard”.