‘Tis the season to clarify values

Fri, 12/23/2016 - 11:45am

One morning several years ago, I got to talking with a guy in a coffee shop over in Newport. He was a regular, and sat in the same seat every day. Daily, some folks would stop and chat him up on their way in and out of the shop. The place was very busy one day and the seat next to him was empty so I grabbed it. We nodded the familiar nod of daily coffeeshop guys. He put down his newspaper. “What’s Interstate Navigation?” he asked while nodding to the logo on my shirt. “A ferry company out of Point Judith,” I said. “I’ve seen you here for years,” he said. “Likewise,” I said. He asked what I did in the wintertime. I told him I taught high school literature and theater. I asked him what his dodge was. “Business, real estate, stuff like that,” he said, “I just retired.” He didn’t seem enthusiastic about this.

A guy I know told me once that retirement is not a good thing. He’s a busy guy and likes to work — probably doesn’t need to — and has no intentions of retiring. “Working is good for us,” he said, “It makes us look after ourselves, and that’s a good thing.” I agreed. When we go to work, we feel connected and relevant. By working any job, we can feel a part of something bigger than ourselves; it’s also a good healthy way to burn daylight. We need a sense of purpose, and a sense of pride, because it makes us feel good, about ourselves. In a way, it’s kind of selfish, but that’s okay. Work is important stuff.

It was later revealed to me that the regular coffeeshop guy had been a big shot in his career. He was a leader of men. This guy was a player. Over time, he told me more about his deal. (He was not a braggart.) One day he told me of an acquisition and sale of something, which earned him a boatload of money. There was a pause as he looked at me. Then he said he golfed every day, basically to take a walk. He saw boating as a boring thing to do. I wondered what this guy had in him, that drove him to get out of bed in the morning.

“I go in the office somedays just to see how the company’s doing,” he said. Then, he paused again and looked at me and said, “I’m not needed there anymore. See, you’ll always be needed, even when you retire you can teach someone to read or write. I’m not needed." The young Turks came in and did all the decision-making and hustle for him. The young guys probably had the gig dialed in, and as he said, he simply wasn’t needed anymore. This exchange has hung with me for a long time; these days I get what he was saying. It’s the natural progression of life for us to eventually get out of the way, and let the younger folks take command of things.

We’re raised to aspire to greatness, and acquire stuff. We’ll hustle, grind and sweat in order to earn our nickels, so we will buy stuff. Some will have more stuff than others — it’s the way of the world. Some will have too much stuff, and it becomes a burden, because they’ll need to manage and maintain said stuff. Plus, there’s always someone competing with you, and trying to get more stuff than you, or even trying to get your stuff from you. Getting stuff is pretty easy; a free market economy allows this. So, we hustle and get our wants and needs fulfilled. And then, once we do that, we can retire from the hustle and flow of the working thing; however, we might be left with the same conundrum as the guy in the coffeeshop. We might not be needed, and this does not seem like a good place to be. 

In “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens tells us the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. He loved his stuff so much that he was a stingy guy — he hoarded his loot. He was “needed” alright; he needed to make money — to what end we don’t know, because Dickens doesn’t tell us. After Jacob Marley’s ferocious tap dance on his brittle and aging psyche, our boy has an epiphany. He wakes on Christmas morning with a shot at redemption. He takes it. We all know this cautionary tale about being a cheapskate and unkind to our fellow man. Scrooge dodged a bullet — he had a chance to redeem himself, and as a result the tragically flawed Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge became needed. Furthermore, it would not be a stretch for this narrative to continue forward, where Scrooge becomes a philanthropist. Just sayin.’

I don’t see the coffeeshop guy anymore — I moved on to different caffeine dispensaries. However, I do still think of what he shared with me that day. Unbeknownst to him, he gave me a pearl of wisdom. The idea of being needed and also being relevant, is something we will all confront — money will not solve this internal conflict. To hear this guy acknowledge where he was in the world was a humbling thing. Finally, if the old crotchety, curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge figured out this conundrum — of being needed — then maybe we all have a shot.

Merry Christmas.