By Rob Shaul
For years I’ve pondered the question, “What is a good life?”
The statics on happiness (and a good life) are clear and consistent. The happiest old people are married, have had long careers in the same field, have lived in one place for a long time, and have children.
Perhaps the typcial American “ideal” of a good life is to work hard, bootstrap your way up, build a family as best you can while providing for them along the way, and hope you live long enough to retire and enjoy some of your labor before you die.
But … this “grind” along the way work wise can mean pure drudgery, sticking to a career you’re not passionate about, living in a place you’re lukewarm about, and perhaps “wasting” your youthful physical years stuck behind a desk so when you do get free of the work shackles, physically you just can’t do the stuff you dreamed about all those years.
Relationship-wise it can also mean sticking to a bad, or tepid, marriage/partnership and missing out on all the exciting romantic flings we see on TV.
I’ve met people at this end, who are bitter 60-70 year olds, hard to be around.
At the other end are people who simply don’t commit to a career, place, or person. They are “free” from many commitments including debt and marriage/relationship, but because they’ve never committed to anything are always living paycheck to paycheck – well into theirs 40s, 50’s, 60s.
Sometimes they have committed to a career – but it’s been a service career – bartender, mountain guide, hunting guide, ski instructor (winter), rafting guide (summer). I’ve seen a lot of this in Jackson.
These people are those who make the pages of Outside magazine – or it’s ideal – lots of outdoor adventure, many exciting, though short, flings with other hot people, exciting worldwide travel all the time. Pro-deals on all the outdoor gear, magazine photos/spreads, athlete sponsorships.
But, then turning the corner on 40, living in a Yurt or with 3 roommates, passion long gone from bartending or guiding, suddenly and silently they transition from “cool” to “sad” and desperate.
Financially, they are one knee injury away from losing a year’s worth of work.
Relationship-wise, potential partners in their age range see the financial situation and despite the good looks and stickers on the truck, see no future.
Career-wise, the industry has long since looked for new, younger, talent. So they too, end up bitter, lonely, 50 year olds despite a lifetime of incredible outdoor adventure (at least according to the magazines and youtube).
In each case, the person made their own choices – and though seeming opposite, ended up at the same place.
You may be thinking, “duh Rob,” the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Work hard, make sure your foundation (money, relationship, family, home/place) is solid, but don’t work so hard along the way that you don’t make time for adventure.
But I’m not so sure – because I’ve met people who’ve followed this path as well. And though they seem a little better than others, still regret and bitterness is there.
We’ve all heard Thoreau’s line that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” When I’ve heard that I always assumed Thoreau was making a judgment, and implying that it’s our life choices to avoid this common fate.
But now I’m not so sure. I wonder if this “quiet desperation” is part of the human condition – like accommodation – and though we can manage it, we can perhaps never make it go away.
It builds as we move into our 50’s and feel the constant and intensifying “wind in our face” of our coming death, combined with the accelerating pace of physical decline, and it simply makes us desperate.
For a long time I’ve sought broad “solace” in my life. “Solace” in the overall sense of peace, consolation, relieve that I’ve achieved to my potential, accepted and forgiven myself for my mistakes, built a legacy, provided for my family, and overall, simply been a good man.
This “solace” isn’t something that could be forced, or faked. I was hoping it would come with age and seasoning – relief and peace I would graduate to in the latter third of my life.
But as I look back now, I’m not sure despite all I’ve accomplished chasing it, I have more “solace” now than in my 30s – when I was treading water as hard as I could simply to survive.
I feel magical moments of solace, but never long stretches.
As a younger man I was disappointed in myself for not having accomplished the things I thought I needed to finally achieve solace. Now, almost 54, I’m disappointed in myself for having accomplished many of those things, but not feeling solace!
Perhaps …. or rather, probably, my ladder has been up against the wrong wall this entire time.
Perhaps Solace is unachievable, at least for me – so I should stop hoping it arrives.
Maybe Thoreau’s “desperation” or my own disquiet, will cause me to continue to push and work well into my 70s.
Not solace, but perhaps a continued mission, is what works for me.