Friday, November 13, 2009

The Almighty Dollar (Athens, TN)

Me, the Schrocks and their youngest son on Saturday morning in Athens, GA

The Newsons and I on Friday night in Athens, TN

There have been two or three times where my best laid plans have come undone at the last minute. Each time a solution has manifested itself, without any effort on my part.

Back in Christiansburg, Viriginia Barry Helms bought me a hotel room when his wife got very sick a day before I was to arrive. Then, this past Friday in Athens, Tina Newson had to call an audible for nearly the same reason. Her husband Tom came down with a bad bout of the flu and she was battling it as well. I got a call from her Friday afternoon to let me know she would meet me somewhere in Athens and take me to dinner but afterwards she would be taking me to another family who would host me for the night.

Considerations like this are probably a bit part of the reason that eleven weeks into this trip I still haven't come down with as much as a cough. No cold. No flu. No walking pneumonia, although that would probably be the most appropriate disease to contract given my vocation. I think the other part of the equation is that my immune system is bolstered by all the exercise, water and fresh air. I should stop boasting. Pride always cometh before the fall.

Tina and her kids treated me to a great dinner at a restaurant in downtown Athens run by a family from Miami. That is also where Tina and Tom lived before moving to Tennessee. I've been to Miami only once, but it seemed nothing like Athens. We talked about what it is like to acclimate to a new culture and find a new community of friends. I don't know how I would handle it if I was forced to move from NYC to a much smaller, more rural town. I grew up in a farming village but that was then and this is now. I am too used to cultural diversity, endless theater options and $12 movies. Wait a second, I could live without that last one.

Tina and her kids sometimes go up to a $1 second run movie theater in Knoxville. One dollar! I don't know what I could get for $1 in New York City. There is a funny commercial I recently watched that posed that very same question. It shows a guy getting into a NYC cab holding $1 and saying, "Where can I go for this?" and the cab driver simply says, "You can get out."

Tina's family goes to the local Vineyard Church, but she grew up closely connected to the Mennonite Tradition. I got connected to her and her husband through the Mennonite Your Way Directory. I have probably mentioned it on here before, but it has been a wonderful resource for me. The Mennonite tradition is steeped in hospitality. When Tina realized it wouldn't be prudent for me to stay with them she was able to find me a room with the Schrock family.

Gary Schrock, his wife and their children (four boys, two girls) live just outside of Athens. He runs a family business that builds and installs roof trusses. I am not sure how much notice they had that I would be staying with them but it didn't seem to matter. They welcomed me as if was the most normal thing in the world to have a cross country walker saunter into their living room on a Friday night. In the course of our conversation that night and then the following morning I got a quick education on the roof trussing business. Like, for instance, what a roof truss was.

Owning a small business can not be the easiest thing. I have never been much of an entrepreneur so I can't relate to what Gary must face day in and day out. The boom and bust cycles of unsteady business must be unsettling at times. Yet as a family they have a rock solid faith that God will provide. Gary shared with me a recent decision he had to make about taking a rather sizable amount of stimulus money that would have come with some strings attached. It could have possibly helped him to grow his business, but in the end he didn't feel right about taking it. Since making that decision he has seen an uptick in business, so he figures God is providing. What he is making will be the value of a hard day's work, not a hand out.

He admitted it wasn't an easy decision. Had I been in his shoes, I can see how tempting it would have been to accept the money. Listen, who wouldn't feel the Siren call of free money? I've never been one for lottery tickets, but when I have bought some in the past I realized that I wasn't really purchasing a chance to win some astounding sum of money. I was purchasing the right to daydream for a few minutes or a few hours about what it would be like to not be limited by the lack of money anymore.

I am not going to sit here and say that if someone walked up to me right now and offered me 5 million that I would not take it. I almost certainly would. But I will posit that, counter-intuitively, it would probably end up being a bad decision in terms of my long term fulfillment and happiness. Those things that come most easily to me in life are those that I have most often taken for granted. They aren't enjoyed with the same fullness as earning something by my own labor. Plus, unlimited money could easily be a Siren call that takes my eye off what really matters in life.

That leads to a larger question. Does money itself - whether hard earned or fallen into my lap - have any correlation with happiness and fulfillment? That is a question that each person will have their own opinion on. George Valliant also has an opinion. He is the lead researcher on the longest running longitudinal study of human fulfillment. It started in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1939 and has followed hundreds of its initial subjects through the ups and downs of life, families, kids, careers, fortunes, prestige, deaths, disappointments and everything else life throws at us in varying degrees. I blogged the link to an article about this study back in May. But I will reiterate my take away from that article here. Valliant was asked what he has learned about happiness from being intimately familiar with the lives of all these men over decades and decades of interviews, psychological testing and self reporting. "The only thing that really matters in life is the relationships you have with other people." Full stop. If he would have said that standing on one leg and then said, "The rest of life is just commentary," it would have been a perfect bookend to Rabbi Hillel's statement 2,000 years ago.

Looking at Gary Schrock and his family, I could tell that it mattered not much whether his business was in a boom or bust cycle. The warm, colorful stories they told me about their 6 week family trip all across the Western United States a few years ago pointed toward the obvious conclusion. Their happiness comes from being with each other. Full stop.

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