Thanks to those who’ve commented here and sent private emails in response to yesterday’s post.
I’ve spent the past day skimming books and blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, The Millionaire Next Door and Your Money or Your Life. I’ve enjoyed the introduction to this fascinating world of people who stop consuming so they can stop working. To the uninitiated, I must say at first it feels like talking to an anorexic. “You really only need 150 calories a day. People are just fooled into eating more by clever marketing. If they only had the discipline, everybody would live like this. When you free yourself from eating, you have so much more time to not eat!” Except instead it’s “If you stop buying things, you’ll have so much more money to not buy things with.”
I know I buy a lot of unnecessary things. I also see myself more broadly as a hugely unnecessary person. Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m great. I am just very aware that I am not a strictly utilitarian object.
I used to feel a lot of guilt for not investing my time and brains into public policy or curing diseases. Somewhere along the way, I had a revelation that I had a different role. Mine is not to lengthen lives necessarily, but to give beauty to them–to make them more worth the lengthening. I might have been a good doctor or researcher or teacher (and I’m not saying I never will), but I think my primary talents and chief interests lie in wholly unnecessary things like music, literature and design. I give and receive joy through such expendables as grammar, art songs, matching outfits, wallpaper, gourmet cooking, flowers, Febreeze, Diaper Genie’s–basically anything that makes life smell or feel less like feces.
I remember watching an episode of ER in which John Carter takes over the distribution of his family fortune and redirects all the money they had been investing in the arts toward medicine. The audience is supposed to applaud the moral superiority of his judgement, but even though this was before my graduate work at conservatory, I felt infinitely sad at how frivolously funding the arts was portrayed. I am not about to argue with cancer research, but I also cannot bring myself to love a Mozartless life. Is that really life or merely respiration and digestion.
When my daughter Fluffy asked me “Do flowers even matter?” I replied, “Yes. Beautiful things are what make life worthwhile.”
Fluffy: But boys don’t like beauty.
Me: Yes, they do. People think different things are beautiful, but they all live for the beauty in their lives. See that post office with all the cherry trees and magnolias and white flower trees? They didn’t need to plant them. A post office doesn’t need flowering trees. But the beautiful things are what make us want to be alive each day–to see what wonderful things will delight our eyes.
I truly believe that. It is my personal creed.
But beauty costs money. There will always be those who look at the cherry trees around a post office and see needless waste. Not being able to afford opera tickets is one thing, not seeing any value in them is another. I haven’t given up on the anti-consumer movement as I’m just getting to know them, but for now, I believe Mr. Money Mustache and I are in the stage of pitying each the other.