“It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.
-1 Corinthians 10:23
I was a few years old when my parents bought their first house for under forty thousand dollars. The house had blue and yellow wood siding. The floor was split and peeling linoleum. Everything smelled of cat piss. Some of the cabinets were missing doors. The refrigerator was the color of olives. The bathroom and the room above it were sinking into ground. The pipes were uninsulated and froze every winter. The basement had a root cellar dug into the bare shale. The shed out back had collapsed under a heavy snow.
But my mom had picked the house, and she was willing to live in it if it could be hers. My parents’ living situation had been complicated. They lived with Arizona (my great-great grandmother), and for a time, my grandfather’s garage. Dad couldn’t bear living with Arizona. She was a woman of the Great Depression, and didn’t believe in air conditioning. Mom couldn’t live above the garage. My grandfather, a bachelor, ran power tools under her feet until late at night. Mom’s job started early, and she had an infant son. Neither situation was tenable. After both their experiences, they were happy to have a place of their own regardless of its condition.
My father had dropped out of college a few credits shy of a business degree. My grandfather’s grocery store had closed, and any hopes my father had of inheriting the business were dashed. He was working as a garbage man. My mother had worked her way up from washing dishes at the local hospital to managing the kitchen.
I didn’t know that we were poor at the time. What kid does? I thought my mom and dad had the most interesting jobs. I still have a worksheet from the second grade; the question was “what do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was: “a garbage man.”
Sometimes I was allowed to go to work with my father. He woke me up early to make a brown bag lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches. We rode the back roads, stopping to toss bags into the bed. We took turns improvising insults and directing them at the other drivers. “Look at that jackass” he would say, and I laughed until my sides hurt. Some nights during the week, my dad would take me out in the big truck (the one with the compactor and the hydraulic levers) to empty the dumpsters at McDonald’s. He let me pull the levers, and I watched with great joy as the truck gobbled up the half eaten cheese burgers and used cups. I didn’t realize until much later that the only reason I went along was because there was no place else for me to go.
My mother’s work was much less interesting to me. I went with her every day before school. She reported to work at 5:30AM, and schools didn’t open until later. I sat at a table and drew. I had an endless supply of chocolate milk to keep me entertained until I left for school.
When I got a little older, Mom worked out a deal with the school lunch ladies. Mom promised that I would sit and read quietly, and the lunch ladies agreed to let me in the back door before the school opened. Mom dropped me off each morning a little after five, and I read until the other students started to arrive around seven. We did that for three years.
During the summers she dropped me at the pool. She lied to the teenage lifeguards and told them I was 12 (the age to swim without parental supervision). I was actually 9. I let the secret slip one day, and the lifeguards called Mom down from work. They had a long discussion, and somehow she persuaded them to continue watching me, knowing that it was a liability. I spent every day of summer, rain or shine at the pool. I didn’t realize that she was using the pool as day care until I was an adult. Our family couldn’t afford lost wages or childcare.
My favorite toys were found at yard sales and rescue missions. I got nice gifts for Christmas and my birthday, but everything I owned was just a bit older than the other kids at school.
The prioritization of my life toward seeking wealth was a natural result of childhood scarcity. My dad eventually got a job at the local sand mine. My mom worked her way up from dish washer to dietitian. My siblings went to legitimate daycare. We took family vacations. The house slowly got remodeled. My parents bought new furniture. We turned the thermostat up a bit higher in the winter. By my teens, my family was thoroughly in the middle class, but the imprint had been made. It was my conclusion that the improvements in our life came from increased wealth, and to an extent that was true. I don’t know if we were happier, but it felt like it.
The culture of my family emphasized the power of education. My grandfather was the root of this. He would say “a good education is the only thing they can’t take away from you.” If knowledge was to change my life and make me rich, I would educate myself. I devoured novels by the hundreds. By sixth grade I was reading Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy. My parents were asked to stop me from taking horror novels to school after a nosy teacher read some of Demon Seed over my shoulder during a scene where an artificial intelligence is trying to rape the protagonist. They refused to obey the school’s wishes, and they refused to limit my intellectual curiosity. I was allowed any book I wanted, and when I wanted new books, my parents dropped everything to rush me to the library or book store.
I read because I enjoyed it, and it was valued by adults. I was rewarded for reading. Books were the only thing that was never never denied me. But my motivations for reading weren’t truly my own. Adults encouraged me to read because they viewed it as economically important. Reading was a means to an end. It was an investment with little intrinsic value.
Wealth seeking informed my decisions until I found myself so deeply unhappy that I was forced to reevaluate my life. I’d gotten my bachelor’s degree in business administration because I thought it would be economically viable. I ignored the fact that going to all of my business classes was dreadful. I viewed them as a waste of time. I minored in English literature so I would have an excuse to go to classes whose subject matter I enjoyed. It was a mistake that I later corrected by getting a masters degree in English education.
I started my teaching career in the same district I’ve lived my entire life. Teaching in West Virginia didn’t pay well, but I made enough money to buy a home and provide for my family. I worked in the community where I lived, and I often got to see my students in town at community functions. I was working non stop, but I was doing it for the betterment of my community, and I cared deeply about the success of my students because they were my neighbors. But I live a short distance from Maryland and the promise of a much higher salary.
I left my home district to commute. I didn’t get home until late each night. The after school meetings and continuing education were burdensome and frequent. I failed to establish any rapport with the students. They liked me ok, but we had no common experiences to build from. Many of them lived in housing projects. I’d come from trailer parks and playing in the forest. I didn’t know my students. The other staff in the building weren’t helpful because they were too busy jockeying for higher position. Administration exercised ownership over staff because of the higher wages. I only had about ninety minutes of leisure time a day after grading and planning were finished. I missed spending time with my family. I missed reading and writing. I’d traded my family time and my hobbies for money. The paychecks were swollen and appreciated. My wife and I bought expensive dinners, appliances, and gadgets in failed attempts to fill the new void in our lives and sooth our mutual longing for one another.
My misery quickly turned to existential dread.
Because I had made earning the most important thing in my life, I had surrendered meaning. I had always assumed that life was made better by increased wealth. I was earning more than ever, but I was taking anxiety meds before work each day, and I was experiencing irregular heartbeats, sleeplessness, and depression. I was crying frequently. My marriage was falling apart due to neglect, and I felt as if I was incapable of feeling joy.
I’d made a horrible mistake. I’m lucky that the people in my hometown were willing to answer the phone when I called and hire me back. I retreated home, and I was welcomed. My health recovered. I dropped the anxiety meds and repaired my neglected marriage.
I learned a hard lesson; some things are more worthwhile than wealth. My wife had often told me that “money isn’t everything.” I had thought her foolish, of course money was everything. The only people who questioned the inherent value of money had given up striving for more of it. But I was confronted with this undeniable evidence to the contrary. My paychecks had been bigger than ever, but I was more miserable than I had ever been bagging groceries and eating Ramen as a college student.
The next question then must be, if “money isn’t everything” then what is left behind after money has lost its value? If money isn’t happiness, then what is?
Perhaps the goal of life isn’t happiness at all, and perhaps a quality life and a joyous life aren’t always synonymous. Seeking wealth to acquire happiness is a dead end. The highest aim of life is not happiness but purpose. Purpose is what keeps me teaching close to home. Purpose is what motivates me through difficult times. Purpose is why I write. I wrote and I worked in my community before anyone ever paid me to do it.
Our modern society is so starved for purpose, especially young men. This is most noticeable among my low income high school seniors. The poverty isn’t what drives them down, it’s hopelessness. Many of them are working at dead end retail jobs, unable to afford college, and lacking access to the resources to secure funding or seek admission. They find themselves thrust out into the world, stuck before they even get started. They have to run as fast as they can just to remain stationary. No child of an age of rational thinking strives to the lowest order of the social hierarchy, and it’s written on their faces their life isn’t what they envisioned. Instead of greeting the future, more and more of my students must confront it. I notice how their shoulders slump, how their faces become drawn when they understand that their choices mattered all along, that they threw away their opportunities, and that they’ve handicapped themselves for the rest of their lives. Now, without a goal higher than falling into another service job, they believe the bulk of their lives will be empty and unrewarding.
I was fortunate that, even for a misguided reason, education was emphasized heavily throughout my childhood. That’s the only reason that my life is as good as it is. The present rot and decay that is lurking just below the superficial level of our society is to a degree caused by this hopelessness among our young adults, and that hopelessness is a byproduct of wealth seeking. Not everyone can be wealthy. Not everyone can have infinite access to all material things. And past a certain threshold that provides financial security, increased wealth doesn’t increase fulfillment.
But purpose is something that is infinite and individual. Each of us can find purpose. We can give our time to those who mean the most to us. We can volunteer in community groups. If most of the world is outside of our sphere of influence, then we can start changing ourselves. We can trade television for reading. We can stop neglecting our bodies. We can begin organizing our space. Instead of becoming disenchanted with the world for all we aren’t and all we are unable to be, we can turn our efforts inward and begin clearing resentment from our lives. We can step out into the unknown frontiers of our community, gaining the intangible benefit of exploration, a feeling of accomplishment. That feeling is the purpose of life, not happiness, and not material wealth. That feeling can’t be purchased for money, it must be purchased with discomfort.