My youngest son is of a taciturn (doesnt like to talk much) nature. He is also a firefighter. On the occasions that he is willing to talk at all, he will begrudgingly discuss in vague terms some of his on-the-job experiences. Recently, after one such conversation, I recalled that old thought experiment that goes something like “If you woke up in the middle of the night and your house was on fire and you knew all people and pets had already escaped, what would you save from burning on your way out the door?” The purpose of the question is to reveal what things the responder values most in their life. Typical responses include answers like photo albums, heirlooms, collectibles, phones/computers, maybe even their car.
Considering how to answer this hypothetical for myself, a quotation from the fittingly-titled movie Heat popped into my head: “Guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner,'” and I realized there was literally nothing (NO THING) I valued enough to delay my exit by even a second.
My first thought regarding this conclusion was “How Pathetic!” But the more I dwelled on it, I realized the lack of irreplaceable things in my life was a positive. Trust me, I’m no Henry David Thoreau “cultivati[ing] poverty like a garden herb.” But I’ve never been much of a materialist either. I don’t covet, I am not envious of, nor am I impressed by the stuff other people own or can afford to do.
I’m one of eight children of hard working but far from affluent parents. Although we were never lacking in basic necessities and somehow our parents always found a way to make Christmases and birthdays plentiful with gifts, beyond that there weren’t many luxuries. Hand-me-downs, communal socks and underwear baskets, shared beds were the norm. In fact, many of my relatives, neighbors, and friends came from similar situations.
I think folks who come from such an upbringing respond to it in one of two ways as adults. For some, the paucity of material items in their childhood leads them to make the collection of wealth and material items paramount to their notion of success and purpose. They are driven to provide themselves and their families with the things they lacked when children. On the other hand, there are people like me for whom the statement rings true that “You can’t miss what you never had.” For better or worse, wealth and/or the accumulation of stuff has never motivated my choices in life.
The fact is I could have made other choices that most likely would have resulted in a more materialistic lifestyle. I was a fairly intelligent kid. Had I been so inclined, I know I could have been a straight “A” honors student in high school and placed myself on a career track that would have provided me with more of the so-called creature comforts of life. At that time, however, I just wasn’t that interested in school, studying, or planning for my future. I was more interested in girls, goofing off with my buddies, Springsteen, and sports. In college, I’m confident that I could have succeeded in any course of study if – but only if – I was willing to devote the entirety of my college years to study. I wasn’t. I don’t regret it.
So for 38 years, I’ve been a school teacher, a profession that has allowed me to people my world with and impact the lives of literally thousands of young people. Teaching has also gifted me with something much more valuable than stuff: time. Time to pursue other interests or just to, in the words of Walt Whitman, “lean and loaf and invite my soul.” And with that time, I’ve been able to make my boyhood dream of being writer a reality of sorts. Teaching school was never going to make me rich, at least not financially, but I knew that it wouldn’t when I undertook the quest to become an educator. I was okay with that reality then, and I remain just fine with it today.
As we are both educators, my wife and I don’t drive fancy cars, we don’t go on lavish vacations, and we wear out our automobiles, furniture, and appliances to their sorry end. In fact, there are times, like both of our sets of parents did, that we struggle just to make ends meet, but somehow we do. It’s easy to say, but I’m confident that we could lose every THING we own, and we’d be just fine.
So, If my house were burning down around me, there’s nothing that would motivate me to risk losing even one of my diminishing number of seconds of future time spent with my wife, kids, and grandkids, my extended families, my friends, and my students.
My answer to the house on fire: I’m getting the hell out of that house.
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