Being locked down at home isn’t something new or unusual for me. I have been working from home for the past nine years. And when I say working from home, I mean consciously being locked down, with my eyes in my books or on the computer screen and my hands on the keyboard most of the time.
However, this situation is unusual for my kids. Like all kids, they are finding it uneasy not being able to meet their friends and go out and play, though they understand the responsibility of not doing so as of now.
So, one of my responsibility as a “locked-at-home-father-with-locked-at-home-kids” is to come up with ideas to keep them from getting bored. And one of those ideas has been for our kids to tell us stories that they have read or heard. It’s like they are enacting as parents and me and my wife as kids, waiting to hear good night stories before we sleep.
Here is a story my eight-year-old told us last night, which I thought had a great lesson for most of us chasing success, fame, wealth, and everything that we think makes life better.
I also thought this story makes great sense in the current times of fear and uncertainty, so thought of sharing with you.
The story is from Aesop Fables and is titled The Town Mouse & the Country Mouse. Here it goes –
A Town Mouse once visited a relative who lived in the country. For lunch the Country Mouse served wheat stalks, roots, and acorns, with a dash of cold water for drink. The Town Mouse ate very sparingly, nibbling a little of this and a little of that, and by her manner making it very plain that she ate the simple food only to be polite.
After the meal the friends had a long talk, or rather the Town Mouse talked about her life in the city while the Country Mouse listened. They then went to bed in a cozy nest in the hedgerow and slept in quiet and comfort until morning. In her sleep the Country Mouse dreamed she was a Town Mouse with all the luxuries and delights of city life that her friend had described for her. So the next day when the Town Mouse asked the Country Mouse to go home with her to the city, she gladly said yes.
When they reached the mansion in which the Town Mouse lived, they found on the table in the dining room the leavings of a very fine banquet. There were sweetmeats and jellies, pastries, delicious cheeses, indeed, the most tempting foods that a Mouse can imagine. But just as the Country Mouse was about to nibble a dainty bit of pastry, she heard a Cat mew loudly and scratch at the door. In great fear the Mice scurried to a hiding place, where they lay quite still for a long time, hardly daring to breathe. When at last they ventured back to the feast, the door opened suddenly and in came the servants to clear the table, followed by the House Dog.
The Country Mouse stopped in the Town Mouse’s den only long enough to pick up her carpet bag and umbrella.
“You may have luxuries and dainties that I have not,” she said as she hurried away, “but I prefer my plain food and simple life in the country with the peace and security that go with it.”
Moral: Poverty with security is better than plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.
This story took me back to a video I had seen some years back of a TED talk given by Jon Jandai, a farmer who lived in a small village in northeastern Thailand.
Jon’s life, as he described, was easy and fun. However, people from outside the village convinced him that he was poor and that he should move to Bangkok to pursue success. So he went to Bangkok in search of a better life, but quickly felt miserable staying there, luckily returned to his village, and then wondered –
Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?
In his talk, Jon explained why he stopped chasing other people’s dreams and instead started living life on his own terms –
And before I think that stupid people like me who never get a good grade in the school, cannot have a house. Because people who are cleverer than me, who get number one in the class every year, they get a good job, but they need to work more than 30 years to have a house. But for me who cannot finish university, how can I have a house? Hopeless for people who have low education, like me.
But, then I started to do earthly building, it’s so easy. I spend two hours per day, from 5 o’clock in the morning, to 7 o’clock in the morning, two hours per day. And in three months, I got a house.
And another friend who’s the most clever in the class, he spent three months to build his house, too. But, he had to be in debt. He had to pay for his debt for 30 years. So, compared to him, I have 29 years and 10 months of free time. So, I feel that life is so easy.
He added –
Why we need to follow fashion? Because, when we follow fashion, we never catch up with it, because we follow it. So, don’t follow it, just stay here. Use what you have.
Jon also said this –
We have so many people who finish from university, have so many universities on the Earth, have so many clever people on this Earth. But, life is harder and harder. We make it hard for whom? We work hard for whom right now?
I feel like it’s wrong, it’s not normal. So, I just want to come back to normal. To be a normal person, to be equal to animals. The birds make a nest in one or two days. The rats dig a hole in one night. But, the clever humans like us spend 30 years to have a house, and many people can’t believe that they can have a house in this life. So, that’s wrong.
The stories of Jon and of the Country Mouse who dreamed of living like the Town Mouse have great lessons for a lot of us who believe that a lot is needed to live a happy life.
The lockdown proves otherwise. I am sure, like me, you may have realised that so little is needed to survive and feel secure and happy at it. The lockdown also proves that most of us have “enough” to live with contentment, if we may choose to live that way.
However, because “fear and discontent” sell better than “security and contentment,” the former is what we get used to live with most of our adult lives.
And that shows up everywhere.
Whether it is –
- fear of missing out on stocks that we did not buy earlier but are rising now and making other people richer, or
- discontentment of living a “visibly” inferior life compared to our friends and neighbours, or
- frustration of not getting everything we desire, or
- regrets from the past that don’t allow us to move forward with confidence, or
- worrying about the future so much that we can’t enjoy the present, or
- fear of failures and of making mistakes that keeps us from acting, or
- insecurity that keeps us in our comfort zones even when they stop being safe, or
- seeking validation from others to determine our own worth.
The list of our fears, insecurities, and discontentment, most of them unwarranted, is endless. However, not all these are our own creation. As Matt Haig writes in his book Reasons to Stay Alive, the world is designed to depress us and keep us there –
Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.
To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.
Consider investing for once. Most people invest using benchmarks set by others than what would help them sleep peacefully at night. Reasonable return expectations are looked down upon in the chase for alpha. Surprisingly, this in a game where alpha is a pipe dream for most people, including the smartest.
More people trade in stocks for emotional than sensible reasons. Portfolios are designed to look good. We are sold stock and mutual fund ideas as if our lives depended on them. And that if we don’t buy those products, we are told, we would end up in poverty and despair, even as our friends and all those friends we know on Twitter and Facebook would get rich.
People are led to make financial plans for 20-30 years ahead, while not many are taught to deal in the present with the behavioural aspects of taking care of their money, like simplicity, frugality, and patience.
Financial freedom remains a subject tied only to money and not to the peace that no amount of money or wealth would get us, but which is a subject matter of the understanding within, of course, along with enough money.
The fact is that the more we think that a lot of money is what we need to live happily, and the more we associate money with most things in life, the more we convince ourselves that we are too poor to buy our freedom.
But this is what the world is increasingly designed to do to us – always create that fear, urge, and urgency to go for more, even when we have more than enough.
However, like Haig adds to the above note –
Yet we have no other world to live in. And actually, when we really look closely, the world of stuff and advertising is not really life. Life is the other stuff. Life is what is left when you take all that crap away, or at least ignore it for a while.
Practice this in investing too, and you will be at great peace always. Take all that crap away – unwanted noise, advice, and financial products – and stick with what is the bare minimum, including the idea of having enough money and that’s it.
You won’t then have to wait for your financial freedom in the future, for the worry about having a lot of money will disappear right away, and you will start feeling grateful for what you have right now – adequate food, safe shelter, and the company of your loved ones.
That world won’t depress you, believe me.
I would like to end the post with a story I shared with my kids recently. It is about a monk and a minister.
Two close boyhood friends grow up and go their separate ways. One becomes a humble monk, the other a rich and powerful minister to the king. Years later they meet up again.
As they catch up, the minister (in his fine robes) takes pity on the thin, shabby monk. Seeking to help, he says: “You know, if you could learn to cater to the king you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.”
To which the monk replies: “If you could learn to live on rice and beans you wouldn’t have to cater to the king!”
Stay safe, stay sane, and be grateful for this life.
And as Jon said, life is easy…let’s not make it hard.