Monday, 13 January 2014

But I DO work !

Taking very early retirement to go sailing is not without its downsides, one of which is trying to respond gracefully to the question “so what do you do?”  I’ve tried explaining that we sail, which inevitably disappoints and confounds, creating an uneasy atmosphere as if we were trying to hide something shameful, or throwing out an enigmatic answer in a feeble attempt to change the subject. 

Although circumstances usually prevent me from saying so, the truth is that I have dedicated myself, full-time, to the pursuit of happiness (Iife and liberty having been attained through a combination of pure luck and the sacrifices of countless others, for which I am thankful daily).  But retiring early to chase bliss is not as easy as it sounds. Studies show that retirement increases the risk of depression by 40%, where a lack of purpose is often identified as the root cause.  If you think lack of purpose at 65 is tough, try looking at it through the eyes of a 45 year old. 

Purpose is, in my opinion, highly over-rated.  It may even be dangerous, especially for the recently retired.  I believe much of this purpose-angst has to do with large-scale social manipulation and a poor grasp of philosophy, at least in the west.  The ancient Greeks considered work to be degrading to virtue and something to be avoided if at all possible.  Aristotle called happiness the ultimate aim of all human endeavours, explaining that we desire things in order to be happy; we don’t seek happiness in order to achieve other aims.  He goes on to say that happiness is not a state of being but an activity, where contemplation is its highest virtue.  But in western society, the concept of happiness has become linked to contributing to society, and contemplation in the pursuit of happiness is viewed as a selfish and futile endeavour.

One of my favourite children’s tales is Frederick, by Leo Lionni, which addresses this sticky issue of the value of work and what constitutes a contribution to society. Frederick the field mouse is a dreamer and a poet who has difficulty staying “on task” during the preparations for winter, stocking up on food and supplies with his field mouse family.  When they complain about his laziness, he replies,

“I do work. I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

“I gather colours, for winter is gray.”

“I gather words, for the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”

During the long winter, morale plummets as supplies dwindle, and Frederick’s family mockingly ask him to share the supplies that he has stored up for the winter.  Frederick asks them to close their eyes, and begins to paint stories in their minds with the warmth, colours, and words he has gathered in preparation for those dismal days when there is little to say.  As the story ends, he is applauded by his family who recognize the value of having a poet in the family.

Active contemplation can take many forms.  Our favourite, of course, is travelling, mostly by sailboat.  Aristotle warns that there is no immediately practical result from a contemplative life, so I don’t know why I should feel compelled to identify one for my own.  For now, I’m happy gathering sun rays, colours and words, and travelling as often as I can to encounter new landscapes, cultures, and people.  And it makes me happy to try to take my friends and family along with me through stories and pictures along the way.  I still can’t answer the question “what do you do” very well, but it no longer bothers me.    

All of this is a rather long-winded way of announcing that I’ll be posting some cruising and travelling stories that I’ve stored up over several long gray winters along with updates from the road (as internet connections permit) during our upcoming southward migration.