An Equation for Life

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11

I have spent a considerable amount of time and paper this summer, contemplating the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. As my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) there were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things we had collected and held on to throughout the 60 years of my parent’s life together.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

If anything good can come from the deaths of one’s parents, it is the lessons we, that are left behind, go on living with about what life really is all about.

I recently read an article by Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy, in the New York Times in which he wrote about the equation of life that most of us are currently in the process of solving.

[Life] = [Money]

We spend all this time earning money to spend on stuff that makes up our lives. We swap our lives for money. In fact, we swap about 40,000 hours of our lives over 20 years for money which we then spend on stuff.

His equation morphed into this final assessment:

[Life] = [Stuff]

After my brother’s and my experience of cleaning out the family home of stuff this summer, I could not agree more! To be honest, I think there was way more than 40,000 hours of life swapped for stuff – more like a lifetime worth life swapped for stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying everyone should stop working and earning money and buying things – goodness, things make life worthwhile –  to an extent. We are humans. We need things. As a civilized and domesticated human, I want things and frankly couldn’t live without things. A roof over my head is important, as is heat, clothing, food, and yes, for me a car. I know some people can get by in life without a car – there is a whole movement among the millennials to not own a vehicle – and more power to them! I however, cannot. I like my car and the rapid way it transports me to places I need or want to go. I like to have a comfortable and welcoming home – a remnant of sorts of the home I grew up in, I suppose, where collections created a story of our lives.  A nifty pair of boots make me happy when the weather turns cool.  The quest for things keeps our economy humming. When the economy stops humming most of us start moaning and groaning – so obviously, things have an important role to play in our lives.

But I will tell you right now – I would sell you the clothes off my back and everything I have acquired in my 20+ years of working, to have a few more moments with my mom and dad.

I recently ventured “home” one last time. The house has sold and I needed to gather the few remaining things that had been stuffed into my bedroom closet and pick up a few more things that remained in storage that would now occupy my new home. This was the first time I had stepped inside that house completely void of everything since the day we bought the house 28 years ago. I was 18 years old at that time. A new chapter was opening in my family’s life. Dad had just retired and was looking forward to years of golf and staying put for a change. Mom was looking forward to being close to family again and staying put for a change. It did not dawn on me at that time that this would be the house they would die in.  Standing in that empty house, I felt like a wildfire had come through and swept everything away. Stripped bare of the contents collected, “home” felt foreign to me – as if the 28 years of life lived inside these walls hadn’t happened. The emptiness was too much. I longed to page through the books my dad’s hands once held, and to light again, the candles my mom collected because candlelight always made our hearts glow. I longed for our blue and white dinner plates that served us dinner for 35 years, I longed for the scent of my dad’s Bay Rum and Aqua Velva after shave and my mom’s Bonn Street eau de toilette.  Those things were all gone. Sold and taken away to the stories of other people’s lives or simply gone and alive only in my memories. There was no comforting ticking of the old barn clock that had hung on every wall of every home my parents owned. Just silence.

Poignantly, some of things left behind in my closet were bundles and bundles of cards  – cards from my childhood – cards from friends telling me good bye and good luck as we prepared to move away. Cards from aunts and uncles and cards from Mom and Dad. Cards from when I turned 6 and turned sweet 16. Cards in honor of my confirmation and graduation. I tried to sort through them, thinking now was as good a time as ever to lighten my collection of stuff –  but the “to toss” pile never grew. I found myself clinging to every written word on every single card as a link to my past. I knew in these stacks of cards were some of the last words written to me by Mom and Dad. All I wanted was to see their handwriting telling me they loved me and how proud they were of their little girl. I will never receive one of those cards again.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

Death has changed what I value. Those hand-written cards found in my closet have far more value to me than all the clothes I could ever want to hang there. The sale price of the family home means far less to me than the life once lived within its walls. And that is what makes my heart break.

We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I do not have enough. I did not invest the time I had with them wisely.

Having worked for a financial advisor for 4 years now one would think I would have this investing thing down pat. Well, from now on I plan to. I am refocusing my investments – not in things, not in money, but in life.  I am investing more time in living life.

I’m done swapping countless hours of life for things and empty existence. A few hours for a nifty pair of boots, ok – yes. The rest I plan to invest in the times of my life. Here’s my equation:

[Time] = [Life]

Aside from paying someone to mow my lawn – money can’t buy any of that.

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

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