Are the best things in life free? Or do they cost us? What’s the currency that buys those best things?
I first published this post in 2011. Its popularity has led me to repost it, with a few updates and changes.
Many of us were poor in our youth, at least cash-wise. I certainly lived on a shoestring when I was in college and grad school, and then as a self-employed artist. My happiness rose and fell, though, not with my checking account but with my relationship life – a combination of my family life, love life (rather fiery - but it did yield my novel Revelle), and especially my overall friendship circle.
The biggest predictor of happiness is the quality of our relationships. Slum dwellers and mansion owners alike can fill their homes with loving people and laughter – or be socially isolated, watching TV night after night alone. Homeless folks and CEO’s are equally needy of a partner or friend who stands by them no matter what.
And people of all income levels are equally vulnerable to relationship poverty.
But relationships themselves aren’t free. To the contrary, they cost us through the nose. Here are some of the currencies in which we pay for them.
Time — I gave up some precious writing time this morning when my husband wanted to talk with me (about nothing in particular! Love you, Thor). It’s parents, though, who wrote the book on devoting tens of thousands of hours to loved ones. Parents of infants and young children amaze me, especially when they also work outside the home. Relationships cost time.
Effort — It takes effort to make and keep the commitments that build trust. Nobody ever built trust with others by watching TV, which pastime is probably the height of effortlessness.
Selflessness — because our selfishness directly blocks relationships. We have to ante up some selflessness and generosity if we want people besides ourselves in our lives.
Loss — if humans (or pets) are involved, we will suffer losses. Repeatedly. Here are thoughts from readers on dealing with the deaths of pets they’ve loved.
I cried lately upon learning a friend in Connecticut had died. Talking on the phone with the woman who notified me, it turned out our mothers had died last spring within a few days of each other.
“It’s devastating to lose your mother,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if she was 90, and had had a full life well lived. It still hurts like hell.” “YES!” I said. We sign up for loss when we love — but tend to forget we did that. The larger community, and faith, can help sustain us when we have losses.
What doesn’t work is to try to avoid losses. They’re a currency. Loss is woven into the fabric of the universe.
But so is joy, even ecstasy.
As a junior in high school in 1977 I once had an autumn day that was unusually chockfull of community. I spent the morning co-editing the school newspaper with other newstaff members, and much of the afternoon with the tennis team playing a good, sweaty match against our cross-town rivals. I spent the evening practicing the half-time show with the marching band (I played the trumpet). I carpooled home with friends, talking and laughing, feeling joyous, needed, connected.
Late that night in bed I experienced what I can only describe as infusions of joy tingling in my body. It was both mystical and visceral, and I understood it, then and now, to be an encounter with the Holy Spirit. A person from another religious tradition, or no religious tradition, would naturally have different words for it. These moments of startling joy are another best thing in life.
Are the best things in life free, or not? They cost plenty, but not money. And the currencies in which we pay are good for us. But I’d like to hear your take on this – please comment below.
Coming up this autumn: weekly giveaways of artsy t-shirts by the progressive company 541 Threads — five fed for every thread!