Cleaning out an attic is a subtle form of time-travel, isn’t it? While we packed up our house this past week we stumbled upon many interesting artifacts. These included early pencil illustrations I did in high school, a brochure from a bed & breakfast we stayed at in Savannah, Georgia early in our marriage, and even a letter one of our students wrote to our daughter the week she was born twelve years ago, intended for her to read in the future. These items were interesting, sentimental and sometimes embarrassing, but there was one item that truly struck me—a box of old tax returns and financial records.
Why did this excite me? Because the documents needed to be immediately destroyed. Shredding them seemed so 1990’s, so I took the initiative to burn them in the backyard. I dumped hundreds of pages of documents into an aluminum basin and set it on fire. And there I just sat staring—the flames saturating the white pages to black, then gray, then to crumbs carried away by the wind. I was literally burning down my life. Gone. It felt like I was hiding evidence to a murder.
I was free to consider certain things that were once so important, such as receipts, tax returns and mortgage payment records, not very important at all. In fact, so unimportant that I could light them on fire and no one would really care.
There are so many things we think are so important in our lives, and many of those things have a direct correlation with our net worth. But if we were to set fire to everything that makes up our net worth, what would be left? Everything else—our relationships, our experiences, and our free will, just to name a few. But you know what else would be left? Music, beauty, art, natural surroundings, the sound of the world slowly turning as it continues to provide the air we breath. This, as John Busacker suggests in his book Fully Engaged, is our “life worth.” I like the sound of that. It sounds like being free.
I know full well that most of what I build, acquire, or accomplish will turn to dust. The song Hurt, written by Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and one of the last songs recorded by Johnny Cash, delivers a very sobering message about reaping what we’ve sewn in life, and the bitter sentiment that we may come to at the end of our lives: What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all; my empire of dirt.
Even if you’ve only halfway paid attention to the teachings of Jesus, it’s clear that he cautions us not to live silly lives that are simply monuments we erect unto ourselves. And this came from a homeless rabbi who owned nothing but the tunic on his back. So, between Trent Reznor and Jesus, this thought gives me pause. I’m not saying that we all need to pull a Saint Francis, sell everything we own and start the next TOMS Shoes. I suppose what I’m saying is that somewhere beyond our net worth is everything else. We should probably go looking for it.
Photo (Flickr CC) by A Silly Person