My recent vacation has been a wonderful opportunity to take a much-needed break from my work and travels. It has also been an opportunity to reflect on the four questions I mentioned in my Idleness post that were posed by Richard Leider in his great book Claiming Your Place at the Fire. The title refers to an aboriginal tradition of giving the seats closest to the fire to the community’s elders—not because it is warmer, but because that is the place that one’s voice can be most easily heard by others.
One of his questions that I am reflecting on today is, “Where do I belong?” I remember in 1997 when I started spending a lot of time in Argentina and Mexico that I imagined myself as a ‘global citizen’—a person who has embraced all cultures and is equally at home in Buenos Aires or Mexico City as in Dallas, San Francisco or Vancouver. The fact is that this never happened for me. Even though I may have good friends and be very familiar with a place, it doesn’t make it the same as ‘home’. Perhaps if had I been more proficient or less lazy in learning languages, this might have been different. But that question will go unanswered.
So today the question is very personal. As we approach retirement, the questions of “Where do we want to live?” and “What do we want as a lifestyle?” loom larger and larger. Even though intellectually I intend and expect to continue doing what I love to do, it is naïve to not prepare for a time in the future when I either don’t want to continue this work or, more likely, demand for my services disappears. The scenario is probably familiar to anyone thinking about retirement. It covers a spectrum ranging from living on a boat and seeing the world to getting comfortable on a patio in Mexico or a golf course almost anywhere. In my case, I am fortunate that it also includes continuing to live where I am living and loving life in the Northwest.
My point in sharing this is not to focus on the decision-making process. In itself, the process isn’t much different than thinking about what college to attend or which company to work for or whether to get married or not. What I find interesting is how ‘the little voice in my head’ seems to grow louder as I age and more and more concerned with the future and these questions about the rest of my life. Now I have spent almost 30 years more or less working on ‘myself’ and questions of how to “be here now” and distinguish between my ‘little voice’ and my “self”. Yet here I am mulling these circular questions with as much intensity as if I were contemplating my future at 21 years of age. Every experience in my life tells me that it doesn’t make a fig of a difference where I live and that I will be happy and productive no matter where I choose to be. That, compounded by the fact that I am very happy where I am, has me wondering where this almost obsessive concern for the future is rooted.
My theory is that ‘the mind’ or ‘the little voice’ is basically a machine…a mechanism that doesn’t get older and that ties us to a future determined by our past that is constituted by our cultural programming about ‘how things should be’. From what I can see, we don’t control the ‘little voice’, when it appears or what it says. When it maps onto what is happening in our lives, it is just enough of an illusion to create the appearance that it is volitional. I think that the ‘little voice’ and the ego are the same phenomenon. I also see that the ‘little voice’ cannot make commitments (although it is pretty good at rationalizing how to get out of the commitments we do make). This mechanism, the ego, is all about survival, including survival of our identity, our dreams, our past transgressions, failed intentions and, most of all, our desire to ‘get it right’.