I sometimes wonder if, when we look back on this particular time in history, we will realize the sacrifices made in the name of wealth.
My own father is one of the most brilliant men that I know. He was one of the developers of a pivotal computer language in the early 1960′s. He had no degree, simply a desire to provide for his family and a mind that was made for solving problems. His love of music, literature, art and nature provided me with the kind of childhood that most people could only dream of and though he did well financially, we lived simply. About ten years into his career he discovered that the higher he climbed in the corporate world, the more profoundly dissatisfied he became with his life and one day out of the blue he decided to chuck it all and open a small shop in the University town where we lived that sold high quality, locally produced food. Mind you this was in the 1970′s, way before anyone used the term organic. He was known locally as the health food nut.
As I grew up I noticed that the fathers of my friends were all wealthy, owned big homes with tennis courts and indoor pools, traveled the world on holidays and sent their children to the finest schools, but none of them appeared to be happy. They were grumpy, distracted, miserable pricks whose sons hated them, whose wives cheated on them and whose lives were built on their acquisitions. My father, on the other hand was well respected by a huge number of people who loved to engage him in discussions on virtually any topic- professors, politicians, economists, pot growers, cops, headmasters, pyrotechnic experts, farmers and bankers. If you expressed an interest in any topic and shared it with him in casual conversation, you could count on the fact that at your next encounter my father would dig into his worn out book bag and bring out carefully clipped articles on whatever it was that had been discussed previously and almost without exception the recipient would stand there in awe of the newly discovered tidbit. It was not unusual for me to find guys like Ralph Nader drinking wine out of a juice glass in our study with my father, or to see him laughing it up with John Nash in the storeroom of his shop. He used to trade fruit smoothies to Stanley Jordan in exchange for having him hookup his pig nose amp in the store and play his unique finger tapping guitar licks for the customers long before there was a recording contract. In short, he chose to put all of his energies into living his life rather than to amassing financial instruments.
My father had the kind of intelligence you would expect from someone in the one percent, but the kind of values rarely seen outside of church yard. While other people added to their stock portfolio, he spent his money on season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and on hiking the Appalachian trail with his son.
I understand that in the world we inhabit it is virtually impossible to exist without some means of income. As self sufficient as I have become I still pay property taxes, send my children to the dentist, buy fuel for our vehicles and insurance on our home, but what I don’t have to do is be shackled to the accumulation of financial instruments- not the same thing as wealth. Prior to becoming a farmer I owned a business not far from Admin and was one of the one percent and saddled with all that comes with it- the stress, the employee problems, the taxes, the regulatory compliance, the audits, the infrastructure, the sub-contractors and vendors, and every outstretched and open palm looking for a cut. I quite literally felt like a slave to the wealth I was accumulating at the expense of my health, my sanity and even my own family. Never once did my father express an opinion about what I was doing because he knew that it was my life journey and that only my own discovery of what was important in life would be enough to affect the kind of change I would eventually have to make for the betterment of my family and myself.
Last week was a tough one- building fences, cutting timber, moving livestock onto pasture, planting, tilling, building a barn- and each night I climbed into bed physically exhausted, but comforted and surrounded by a loving family on a well tended patch of earth. On the morning of my birthday I received a card and a book from my father and when my wife called me over to give it to me I sat down in the sunshine and opened the cover and read this inscription.
To My Son on his birthday,
I am so proud that you have taken up the noblest task of all.
All my love,
I no longer have a gold plated insurance policy, don’t own a 401K, earn less than anyone in the FSA and still I feel like a wealthy man. Intelligence is indeed a predictor of income and accumulated wealth can be passed on to subsequent generations as a kickstart towards a future, but the real measure of a man is in the living of his life, the choices he makes and the consequences he lives with. I have no idea what part of the 1% sleep the sleep of the just, feel confident in the love of their wife or the respect of their children, add something to the world rather than strip something off of it, but to believe in my heart that I had been truly successful in life I would rather have that single book with its inscription than a hundred million dollars.
Imagine the kind of world we would live in if more of us felt that way.