This happened last Sunday. It was after church service. I joined two families for lunch. Our children all played together. The parents were chatting at a pizza café beside the kids’ play area. It was one of those usual lunch gatherings. We were talking about why my friend had to work so late into the night almost everyday.
Then, out of the blue, my friend asked me this, “Do you have one million in your bank account now?” I shook my head. “How about 500K?” I said I don’t think so. At this time, the kids came over and the questioning was truncated.
After that, on my way home, my friend’s questions kept me thinking about life and money. I mused about the questions asked. Of course, my friend told me before that he wanted to provide for his son (he has only one child). He wanted to give him the life he never had. He wanted to have savings of a few hundred thousand or even millions for him when he grows up.
I guess that was all prudent on my friend’s part. Who could fault such a future plan? Isn’t it the goal of all money-wise parents to provide for their children (and themselves)?
But then, my thoughts turned to something less money-oriented and more insubstantial, that is, less tangible than cold hard cash. I started to think about relationship, about hugs and kisses, about sharing a joke with your loved ones, about spending time with them, about playing in the park, about showering together, about enjoying a picnic, about singing in the car, about dancing in the rain, about running aimlessly in public, about baking with your kids, about hands painting and getting all dirty, about cleaning the house together, about praying as a family, and about savoring every moment with them that is out of reach of money’s purchase.
I then asked myself: Is there a tradeoff? Can we overwork for something while we underwork for another thing (even unknowingly)? Can we be barking up the wrong tree by chasing the wrong whiff? Can we go to one extreme or the other and never finding a balance as the breadwinner? (who are we winning the “bread” for anyway?) What is the tradeoff at the end of the day?
Of course, I would like to put on record that money or financial security is about up there in terms of familial priority as are good health, character building and personal resiliency, to name just a few. But that which is important can sometimes take precedence over those things that are equally, if not more, important right? My fear is that we may miss the whole family forest for the money trees.
You see, when you start a family, the whole shebang about financial security kicks in whether you like it or not. Most Singaporean families on the average are leveraged up to their ears with housing and car loans. The monthly food, transport, school, utilities and recreational bills will keep most families looking at their bottom line most of the time.
There are always these concerns for our children’s future: Will he make it? Will she pass the exams? How much will that university degree cost? Can we afford it? Will I lose my job? What will happen if I do? Can I hope for a promotion? Can we pay for the tuition? Should we cut down on this and that? These are all legitimate concerns and as parents we should never lose sight of them. It is our sacred responsibility to provide for our children and to provide for them to the best of our ability.
But the irony is that, being a money-driven, status-conscious, anxiety-deluged society, where meritocracy has narrowed the options for most parents (and their children) to good grades, good schools, good jobs, good house, good car and good pay, we risk feverishly chasing after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow just to find out after the long and tiring journey that the pot is really empty and the real gold in life is in fact the rainbow.
In other words, it is the journey and not the destination that truly matters in the end. This is trite but what is often trite is often overlooked. Oftentimes, we are so busy making money, climbing up the career ladder, beating the competitors, pursuing that first-mover advantage and meeting deadlines that we forget to take an intermittent deep breather to survey the landscape, enjoy the view and take stock of what is becoming less important (working without end) and what is becoming more important, if not urgent (like the company that our loved ones miss).
Of course I am not advocating a vagabond, bohemian-like, cavalier lifestyle like the travelling band of nomads, wayfarers or gypsies. But I am just hoping to throw some cold reflective waters into the faces of those who have gone from one extreme to the other extreme.
There is no denying that my friend works hard, coming home late and sometimes returning to work during the weekends. But I think the questions he asked in the beginning of this letter risk mistaking money for life’s purpose or financial security for family priority (and I am sure he will not argue with that).
Money is no doubt important for that rainy day, for that medical emergency, for that long hauled education, for the down payment for that wedding or first home, but my more pressing concern here has to do with always being mindful or watchful of how that desire to possess can quite unknowingly mutate into desires that ultimately obsess. When that happens, we may lose sight of the big picture and get lost in a morass of self-serving, materialism-driven catch-ups that have no definite end in sight. Much will always want more, and more will always want much, so to speak.
In the end, we may spend most of our life becoming rich in everything that we had ever wanted but poor in everything that truly matters. Of course, money can be its own reward and all things may just work out well somehow. I mean who had ever complained about having too much money, right?
But the real loss in such a case is not about having everything you ever dreamed of when the final curtain falls. The real loss is missing out on the golden opportunity to build, deepen and enjoy the relationship with those who loved you unconditionally. It is again trite to say that during such time all they ever wanted was you and not what you’d promised to give them in the future at the expense of your presence with them.
I guess there is some truth in the saying that a fortune lost can be earned back, but the time lost is irredeemable. Cheerz.