How to find the balance between work, freedom, meaning and leaving a legacy.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- The difference between the right to roam and the right to exclude.
- How financially distressed are U.S. households.
- How should you invest your emergency fund.
- What is the purpose of work.
- How do to potentially find your passion.
Two Impoverished Writers Whose Words Endure
Author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was “born into the family of the walkers.” He wrote in his essay “Walking” published in The Atlantic in 1862 that “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
When Thoreau wasn’t walking or writing, he was often out surveying, his primary source of income for many years. Despite his professional efforts, he recognized the imaginary lines he drew to divide the land were only temporary.
“These farms which I have myself surveyed, these bounds which I have set up, appear dimly still as through a mist; but they have no chemistry to fix them; they fade from the surface of the glass…The world with which we are commonly acquainted leaves no trace, and it will have no anniversary.”
The plat lines of the original farms Thoreau surveyed have been redrawn numerous times and the original fences torn down. But even if the fences had remained untouched, they would be buried in dust by now.
Annie Dillard in her essay, “For the Time Being,” writes, “Earth sifts over things as dirt or dust. If you stay still, earth buries you, ready or not. The debris on the top of your feet or shoes thickens, windblown dirt piles around it, and pretty soon your feet are underground.”
“The rate at which dirt buries us varies. New York City’s street level rises every century. The Mexico City in which Cortes walked is now thirty feet underground…On every continent, we sweep floors and tabletops not only to shine the place but to forestall burial.”
“We live on dead people’s heads. Scratching under a suburb of St. Louis, archaeologists recently found thirteen settlements, one on top of another, some of which lasted longer than St. Louis has. Excavating the Combe Grenal cave in France, paleontologists found sixty different layers of human occupation.”
The dirt and rocks upon which Thoreau walked are buried; as are the fields he surveyed. Thoreau’s headstone which is inscribed simply with the name “Henry” remains above ground but only because caretakers reposition it. The crypt itself sinks deeper.
What remains of Thoreau are his words. His lasting impact was not his surveying work but prose that speaks from the dust.
154 years after Thoreau’s essay on walking was published in the The Atlantic, the same magazine published a piece by Neal Gabler titled, “The Shame of Middle Class Americans.”
Gabler tells how the Federal Reserve conducted a survey in which they asked Americans how they would pay for a $400 emergency. 47% of respondents said they would cover the expense by borrowing the money or selling something.
Gabler admits he is one of the 47%. His finances are in a perilous state. He lives paycheck to paycheck, assuming a check actually arrives given the sporadic nature of writing gigs. He has had to borrow money from his adult daughters because he and his wife ran out of heating oil.
Of course, these are the daughters for whom Gabler and his wife sacrificed to pay private school tuition and help support at Stanford and Emory universities.
Gabler writes, “I am a financial illiterate, or worse—an ignoramus. I don’t offer that as an excuse, just as a fact. I made choices without thinking through the financial implications—in part because I didn’t know about those implications, and in part because I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive.”
“I chose to become a writer, which is a financially perilous profession, rather than do something more lucrative. I chose to live in New York rather than in a place with a lower cost of living. I chose to have two children. I chose to write long books that required years of work, even though my advances would be stretched to the breaking point and, it turned out, beyond. We all make those sorts of choices, and they obviously affect, even determine, our bottom line. But, without getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.”
Gabler continues, “I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy. I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else. I didn’t get gulled into overextending myself by unscrupulous credit merchants. Basically, I screwed up, royally. I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. I didn’t take the actions I should have taken, like selling my house and downsizing, though selling might not have covered what I owed on my mortgage.”
“And let me be clear that I am not crying over my plight. I have it a lot better than many, probably most, Americans—which is my point. Maybe we all screwed up. Maybe the 47 percent of American adults who would have trouble with a $400 emergency should have done things differently and more rationally. Maybe we all lived more grandly than we should have. But I doubt that brushstroke should be applied so broadly. Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.”
Gabler has written some truly outstanding books, including biographies of Walt Disney, Barbara Streisand and Walter Winchell. Words that will endure well beyond the grave.
Financial Choices and Living Deliberately
One wonders what Thoreau would have thought of Gabler’s financial choices and his essay. Thoreau’s financial situation was every bit as perilous as Gabler’s. Thoreau like Gabler would have owned up to the fact that much of his financial duress was due to his own choices.
Yet, while Gabler bows his head in financial shame, Thoreau celebrated the freedom to write and walk that his financial choices afforded him. He called it living deliberately.
Thoreau writes in “Walden,” “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
One of the challenges of life is to live deliberately while being financially responsible.