This is a Thing that HappenedPosted: October 21, 2015
Just this week we spent $2,050 fixing our car. It can be very easy to encounter expenses like these and feel like financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) will never arrive. “Oh man, we just spent six thousand dollars in a single month??” “We just obliterated our savings.” “We’re never going to be free!”
I realized something this morning, reading the most recent Frugalwoods post, which in turn reminded me of the classic Brave New Life post “The Waiting Place”. Early retirement is a milestone, not a goal. The real goal is living the life you want to live. A lot of folks seem to treat arriving at FIRE as a talisman where life will go from suck to awesome in 3.2 seconds. Does working a job suck? Often, yes, yes it does. But there are a myriad ways you can inject awesomeness into your life without entering the waiting place. In fact, the more you spend in the waiting place, the more the final destination can only hope to disappoint. Life is something that, like a garden, you cultivate – and gardeners don’t sit around all season and wait for things to magically be available to harvest. We journey alongside it the whole way.
There’s nothing wrong with the knee-jerk reaction of initial frustration at a large expense. Few people can control their instinctual emotional responses. But you are free to respond differently. Your second-order response should not be “oh man, it’s hopeless.” First, recognize that the frustration is a thing that is happening. Second, recognize the cause of the frustration is also a thing that is happening. That’s it. It’s something that has happened. What has changed about our life? What has changed about our interests, passions, and fundamental desires? Nothing. So you shrug your shoulders and move on. It’s only if you’re in the waiting place, focused on the future to the detriment of all else, that you get flustered at the goalposts getting moved out.
Looking at it further, dwelling in earnest in the waiting place becomes insanity. Just as every cumulative decision compounds to create the singular entity we call “I”, future goals – especially finance-dependent ones – are influenced by a dizzying number of factors. Every single dollar we spend pushes the goal away. Mr. Market capriciously moves the goal all over the map in any given time period. If all you did was sit in the waiting place, and see the end goal moving around, you’d drive yourself crazy. That’s no way to live.
Balance and mindfulness is the key. The converse of YOLO, living on blind impulse, is just as insane. A lot of human behavior makes sense when you realize our baseline biology is a hyper-advanced monkey. But we’re more than that. My core religious/philosophical belief is that agency sets us apart. Inside every human is a small piece of the divine cloud of unknowing, the impenetrable mystery of a free agent. We are free, even though we almost never exercise the radical freedom Sartre captures in the link above. Only someone who is free can be mindful of how she acts, how she responds, and ultimately how she chooses to live her life.
A financial setback is just a thing that has happened. It doesn’t change how we want to live our lives. Expressing frustration just gives the event power over us. We are free to reject that biological response, even as we acknowledge its presence. Today is a new day.