There’s a very old and very bad joke about the optimist who fell out of a skyscraper window. As he passed some of the floors on the way down, people would call out to him, “How’s it going?” and he’d reply, “Doing fine so far!”
That came up while reading a news story about Alex and Courtney, a couple in California who are looking at bankruptcy in a couple of months even though between the two of them, they make over $100,000 a year. They also pay $4,100 a month in rent, have $130,000 in debt, like to live the lifestyle of the rich and stupid — including five motorcycles — have a child, and a few other things they feel are essential to maintain the life to which they feel they are entitled. They also have the idea that they don’t have to think about it, fiddle-dee-dee, tomorrow is another day. Like the optimist falling off the skyscraper, they’re doing fine so far, but the pavement is coming up fast . . .
Sethi, a conventional financial consultant has given them some sound advice that is a good, short-term immediate fix. As detailed in the article, the couple should —
· “Move out of Orange County. Right now, the couple spends 45% of their gross income on rent alone. ‘A good guideline for housing costs is to keep it under 28% of your gross income,’ he says. In expensive regions like Orange County, that metric can go up as high as 32% to 33% but Alex and Courtney are still way beyond that.
· “Cut back on luxuries. Alex has five motorcycles and so needs a larger house with a garage to store them all. ‘It's fine to buy really nice things but you have to factor in all the costs, the time and the money and the mental overhead — because if you don’t, these inanimate things will start to own you.’
· Face reality. Sethi claims Courtney isn’t taking her financial situation seriously enough to change things. ‘Even in these dire circumstances, perhaps especially in them, Courtney continues to evade and joke and distract from really taking an honest assessment.’”
There is nothing wrong with the recommendations Sethi makes. We second them. We just think they aren’t enough. For example, where Sethi said that Courtney isn’t taking her financial situation seriously, we’d say that she isn’t take life itself seriously. What is the meaning of purpose of life? If an individual — or, worse, a couple — haven’t figured that out, they’re already in big trouble, even if they have no money worries at all.
So, what is the meaning and purpose of life? Aristotle had a good answer: to become more fully human, or (as he put it) “virtuous.” Okay, Aristotle was a “semi-Greek” as the “real” Greeks viewed Macedonians, and virtue is a Latin word signifying “human-ness,” but the Stagirite (Aristotle was from Stagira in Macedonia) was on to something.
True happiness consists of conforming more closely to your own nature, that is, becoming more truly what you are. It does not consist of acquiring temporal goods (however essential that may be) — or of renouncing them, either! — or shredding other people’s lives to improve the presumed quality of your own, fulfilling some political or social fantasy or demented urge, or anything other than becoming a good person.
This is natural, as Aristotle pointed out in the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, for all things aim at the good. If someone or something aims at something that is not good, it is because there is a distorted or wrong idea of what is good, or there is an effort to avoid a greater evil.
What Alex and Courtney — and millions of other people in our day and age — need to do is reorient their thinking. Yes, Sethi is correct when he says they need to take their financial situation seriously, but it’s not enough. They need to take life itself seriously. Life is not just for fun, although it can be enormous fun and very fulfilling if done right.
The first question, of course, is how to do it. Aristotle gave a broad answer and in the Nicomachean Ethics gave guidelines for individual virtue, and in the Politics the guidelines for social virtue (albeit in an individualistic manner). The Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, gave an individualistic answer, i.e., in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius pretty much said just do the best you can regardless of what other people do or the problems of society, you’re only responsible for yourself.
Jews and Christians (we don’t know enough about Islam to say anything about it in this context, but we assume it’s similar) claim that if you orient your life toward God and at least try to follow the rules in light of your final end, you should do alright . . . as long as you truly grasp the spirit of the rules and not become obsessed with the letter, especially if you’re putting your own interpretation on them.
Admittedly, it can be extremely difficult to discern what’s right and wrong in many situations, especially when all the choices seem equally bad — or good. That’s why one noted commentator, Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, came up with a way to discern whether the spirit of what you want to do is in accordance with becoming more fully human.
Ignatius didn’t put it quite that way, of course, but if you read between the lines of what he said, you can see it:
In every good choice, in so far as it depends upon us, the direction of our intention should be simple. I must look only to the end for which I am created, that is, for the praise of God our Lord and for the salvation of my soul. Therefore, whatever I choose must have as its purpose to help me to this end. I must not shape or draw the end to the means but the means to the end. (St. Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. New York: Image Books, 1964, 82-83.)
In other words, when you’re making an important decision, step back for a moment or two, take stock, and ask yourself whether you’re doing this because you believe it to be good, or whether you believe it to be good because you want to do it. Big difference there.
That is the question Alex and Courtney need to ask themselves as they reorient their lives. It’s not enough just to have sufficient income to buy what you need or want. If you are not properly oriented, it won’t matter how much money you have, because you will always need more than you’re making. What we call the Economic Democracy Actcan solve the rather simple problem of ensuring that people have enough income for what they need, but it can never provide enough to satiate disordered wants.