After a childhood spent unsuccessfully trying to believe in an invisible God who decides what happens in the world, I’ve settled into the notion that we — the actors in life’s drama —are the only ones responsible for what happens to us. We’re not just protagonists, but producers, writers and directors too. Far fetched? I don’t think so.
I live very happily in a modest house with my wife Caroline and Faith, our daughter. One way I contribute to that happiness is to work outside the home. Even though I could manage perfectly well in the basement, I’ve learned from experience that saving pennies that way blurs the line between work and home, and comes at a high interpersonal cost. Locking up the office and making my way home throws a psychological switch that outweighs the cost of rent and utilities by changing my mood each and every workday evening.
I hate traditional office space with florescent lights and sterile rooms, and rent a small apartment. It’s about ten minutes away and, with all the familiarity of home, gives me great personal space in which I can work, think and reflect at my own pace.
People who visit me there see the dense bookshelves and Persian rug—a gift from my dear cousin-in law Peter—and complement me on my comfortable workspace. To me too, it’s perfect place to spend my workdays. However, pry away the veneer and you’ll find a rickety old building with paper-thin walls, ancient plumbing and wiring and a completely out-of date kitchen and bathroom. It’s not a place I’d want to lay my head each night.
The owner’s an investment landlord who’s acquired many rental properties over the years. Some call him rich; I call him stressed. Other tenants tend to see him as a profiteer. I’m more sympathetic, perhaps because I’ve known so many wealthy people whose lives are unenviable; most worry about money far more than those from whom they profit.
I wouldn’t call him a slum landlord but, as you’d expect, he tries to maximize his income and minimize his expenses, principally by delaying repairs until absolutely necessary and finding the cheapest contractor for the job. Three years ago he reluctantly conceded that the roof needed replacing and hired Reg—a man with a quick smile, fast tongue and endless promises. This past weekend Reg finally picked up his stuff and drove away. It took three years, but the roof’s finally done.
Why it languished for so long is something I only found out this summer—not that I really wanted to know. For reasons I can’t fathom, the landlord and the contractor by turns opened their hearts to me with their grievances, apparently hoping I’d take sides and be sympathetic. I can’t help being sympathetic to misery, simply because as a fellow human being I know what it’s like. But it must be something of real consequence for me to take sides.
In all these heartfelt disclosures and undignified supplications for pity, I witnessed two men creating a reality that neither wished for. The landlord, anxious to protect his investment, browbeat the contractor into naming a price that left him with no room for maneuver and lots to resent. The contractor in turn hired the cheapest possible employees who stole his tools leaving him with a net loss before the work had even begun. He had no motivation to complete the job, and turned up only intermittently, each time after the landlord went to great lengths to twist his arm. The landlord, of course, was also under pressure from his tenants to get the job done, put an end to the roof leaks and clear up the endless debris around the property. Knowing what was going on, I didn’t add to this pressure; it wouldn’t have helped.
If, on the rare occasions that the contractor actually showed up, I was unlucky enough to bump into him, he’d talk my ear off explaining what an exemplary job he was doing and waiving away any suggestion that he might check the flashing, vents and eaves, none of which had seen the light of day in forty years. There was no end to his defensiveness and ingratiating smiles.
Periodically, the landlord too would pass by, weary and frustrated, looking upward worriedly, telling me how hard it was to make ends meet what with rising property taxes and such poor workmanship as this. The man has far more money that I’ll ever make, though I dare say that if it’s all tied up in sub-standard property like this, his headaches must be never-ending.
It all reminds me why I renounced such indiscriminate pursuit of money years ago. Even though I’m no longer living the high life of a monk and have to plunge my hands daily into chores and gainful pursuits, money itself is just a means to an end, something to be strategically balanced with the health and psychological wellbeing of my family; that includes me.
Everyone agrees that you can’t take it with you, but look around and you’ll see people everywhere acting as if they can, as if a big house is more comfortable than a small one, or that high prestige adds more to your happiness than to your stress. It’s a sickness recorded in the oldest annals of human history. It’s not cured by simply knowing better, and it can’t be fixed just by reversing your values — remaining poor is no solution either. In this sad and mundane scenario, the rich man and the poor man, each blaming the other for a situation they created together, suffer equally. It takes balance and wisdom to live the good life; it rarely happens by itself, and never by just assuming that since everyone else is chasing the almighty dollar, you should too. All it takes is a little reflection; why is that so hard to find?