Last night while I was driving home from work, I noticed a small change in my thinking that may signal the start of something much bigger. I was on my way to drop off some design work to a friend, something I did for a little extra cash. I was excited about this little boost, and so I figured I could go buy something for myself with it. But then I thought…well, what do I want? Do I need anything? New boots? Clothes? Home decor? I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to buy.
This sort of thing has been happening to me a lot lately. And if you know me personally, you might be thinking that this doesn’t sound like me at all. I’ve always been known to blow all my extra cash in minutes and always have an excuse to get more stuff. When I first started my new running life, I spent $250 on new running clothes and another $300 on several pairs of minimalist shoes. Every new interest or adventure in my life has routinely warranted a spending spree. New stuff equals happiness, right?
Well, it did. It always did, for me. And why was that? Well, there are a lot of reasons, most of which probably stem from the utter dysfunction of my childhood family life. For example, my Grandfather. He is an exceptionally intelligent man, who became an engineer at GE without ever having gone to college. He made good money and he always had the best of everything. For him, objects and money equaled success. His mantra was always “you get what you pay for.” And since I spent a sizable chunk of my childhood living with him, that sense of material worth rubbed off on me, just like it had rubbed off on his children (one of them being my father). But one striking thing about my grandfather is that, even at 80 years old, he is a miserable and unsatisfied man.
As an adult, I have always secretly compared myself to those around me, and I felt better when I came out on top, or at least somewhere in the upper 50%. I had to have the expensive jeans and the Coach bag, a cute new car, the coolest and highest paying job that would let me afford expensive nights out on the town, the apartment in Boston or the cutest house. I turned green with envy when my engineer cousin bought a sports car, went on exorbitant vacations during the holidays, had a wedding in a faraway place that I could not afford to attend, and talked about how much money he made at his new job. I was jealous. I was jealous of all my family who could buy more things than me, and of my friends whose parents could give them money to buy their first house or foot the bill for their ultra-chic wedding. I was jealous of my bosses at work and their high-end cars and 4,000 square foot homes in cities I’d never be able to touch with my salary (though it is a fairly good salary – which it had to be, of course). I used to call this feeling ambition, that I am an ambitious person, just like my Grandfather. But now I realize it was just good ole’ fashioned keeping up with the Jones’. It was a desire for status, for approval. It was a need to be envied by some the way I envied others. And it was keeping me from being actually happy.
Over the last year or two my mind has been changing, however. And as physical proof, my stiletto and boot closet has not grown at all, in fact it’s been pushed over to make room for all my race t-shirts and running shoes. I no longer pay full price for new clothes unless I absolutely love something. And I don’t invite that many people to my house anymore, so really my cute furniture and home decor only has to please me.
And I’m learning that owning my own home is just another one of those American Dream ideals/expectations/scams, like having big weddings, working in an office building, driving luxury cars and having 2.5 kids. It’s part of the set of things everyone is supposed to want, the things that – once acquired – are intended to bring happiness to all. I figured out awhile back that having children is not something everyone needs to do to be happy, and in fact, it would actually make me less happy. With that problem solved, I slowly began to question everything else I was taught in my young American life. Religion, the media, political leaders, running sneakers, the beef in my burger. I would read other people’s Facebook status updates where they list all the things that make them happy in their lives, and I realized they were all material things. And hey, maybe those things do make their lives feel full – far be it for me to tell someone else how to find happiness. But then I looked around my own life. My 52″ television, two new-ish cars, chic home furnishings and overpriced handbags…and well, they have never actually been part of what makes me “happy.” Not by my new definition of happy, that is. My husband, on the other hand? My dog? Going out for a long run on a crisp fall day? A beer and conversation shared with a good friend? Those things have made me happy. And when I say happy, I mean that warm feeling that says “I am content with this moment and need nothing more.” You know, the feeling that makes you smile from the middle of your belly. I believe it, what they say (even though they say it so often that it’s become cliché) – The best things in life…they aren’t things.
I believe it, what they say (even though they say it so often that it’s become cliché) – The best things in life…they aren’t things.
Have you ever been stuck smack in the middle of making a big scary life decision, and all of a sudden there seem to be signs everywhere, arrows practically pointing out which path you should choose? Almost like the universe heard your dilemma and started paving the path to the left with diamonds, lighting it with sunshine and planting your favorite flowers, so that it would look more attractive than the one on the right? Well, I think that my slow surrender of the need for material possessions as the mark of success…well, it is my diamond-paved path. Then some people came into my life to plant peonies along my path, too. And the sunshine? Well…it’s shed some harsh light on the more comfortably-numb parts of my life and it has helped me to recognize that yes, I can let go of those things without letting go of my happiness. And with this realization has come a sense of freedom and joy, second only to realizing that I don’t have to have kids. And like my freedom to have no kids, this decision is not considered “normal” or “The American Way.” So fuck normal. Screw The American Way. I’m gonna go figure out my own dream. And I don’t care if you approve.
So fuck normal. Screw The American Way. I’m gonna go figure out my own dream. And I don’t care if you approve.