"I have no job, no money, no prospects," wrote Henry Miller in his autobiographical novel, Tropic of Cancer. "I am the happiest man in the world."
In 21st-century America, rapidly-growing numbers of the formerly employed are without a job, with pocket contents and bank account approaching (or passing) zero, and not a prospect for the future in sight. Few, though, would declare themselves "happy" at all, much less among the most joyful folks in the world.
Of course, things were different when those words were committed to paper. Henry Miller lived the lusty expatriate life in Paris, in the 1920s and '30s. His days (and nights) were spent in colorful cafes, raucous bistros, and racy brothels, not wandering the streets searching for a job or a handout. Honing his literary skills during that vibrant period, Miller enjoyed the company of other rising stars in the arts who'd taken up residence in France.
Though chronically short on funds, like so many "starving artists" of that age, Miller didn't have to endure glares or taunts from the employed. Or, if he encountered hostility from the better-off, he was free to ignore and scoff at any critical remarks. Thus, Miller and his compatriots were able to lead exciting and rewarding lives, in spite of economic poverty. Could this be true today?
When I first wrote these words, I was sitting on a rooftop terrace in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. My tiny room downstairs in this basic Bed & Breakfast costs just $13 a day - including a substantial breakfast. Despite lack of phone, TV, or closet, I couldn't have been more satisfied.
That's the key: personal satisfaction. How many of us are content, even when dispensing huge sums to keep our daily lives going? Rather than enjoying what we have, even if minimal in quantity and questionable in quality, most of us devote our days to wanting more, to coveting what friends and neighbors have, to salivating over the consumer goods proffered in TV commercials, onlinw ads, and even on billboards.
Folks with families almost invariably respond that they couldn't risk depriving their children. Fair enough. No one wants to see youngsters go hungry or lead stingy lives. Still, we all know that plenty of those products that kids - and their accommodating parents - consider absolutely essential to life are little more than doodads and temporarily-attractive toys, whose ever-so-vital importance soon will fade away.
Like their parents, youngsters keep learnng the distorted lesson that a satisfying life is achieved mainly - if not almost solely - by purchasing and consuming more goods, whether they're actually needed or not. How many of us, young or old, are able to stand back before making a purchase and ask, "Do I really need that? Will it make me happy or improve my life at all, much less do so in keeping with its price?"
Learning to hold back on a purchase that isn't really compelling is the first step toward getting one's priorities in order. Doing without that particular product makes it easier to skip the next one that comes along. And the next.
Does that mean leading an ascetic existence, devoid of tangible pleasures? Far from it. Prioritization lets you devote the bulk of your money - whether it's large or small in quantity - to those elements of life that are truly the most important to you. Making daily choices to do without certain nonessential items is what makes it possible for individuals and families with modest incomes and few assets to do things that plenty of affluent people will insist they cannot possibly afford.
I'm often reminded of a lawyer I met decades ago. We'd answered an ad offering a $10 consultation about drawing up a will. Because my wife and I would soon be disposing of all our worldly goods and heading for Mexico for an extended stay, a will seemed prudent.
At the end of our low-budget consultation, the attorney declared that we didn't have enough assets to make a will worthwhile. But his other comment is the one that's stuck in my mind all these years. Upon hearing our plans to head south of the border, he leaned back in his plush executive chair and mused, "If only I had the money to do something like that." Here was a person who obviously made five, ten, maybe fifteen times as much as I did at that time. His snazzy suit probably cost more than I'd spent on clothes in the previous five years. Maybe ten. Yet, he was the one bemoaning the impossibility of taking a lengthy trip, due to lack of sufficient funds.
How could that be? Simple. Like most folks, he hadn't prioritized his life.