Thursday, October 6, 2022

"What Really Matters"

"What Really Matters"
A reality-check on what's truly important in life.
by Adam Taggart

"Here at, we devote a lot of focus to building wealth and other forms of "capital". This website has hosted thousands of discussions over the years on how to preserve and increase wealth. But what's it all for?

Every so often, it's useful to pull waay back to look at the big picture. To re-examine the Why? underlying our plans and aspirations. Most of us don't do this very often. We usually only do so after life throws us a curve ball - often some form of tragedy or crisis - that suddenly forces us to re-evaluate everything we may have taken for granted beforehand.

I've certainly been guilty of some of this complacency. I think Chris would admit to a little, as well. But sadly, we've both recently experienced traumatic events that have forced a renewed appreciation of what truly matters in life. For me, my (very personal and highly subjective) conclusion is that "what matters" pretty much boils down to just two things:

1. living with meaning, and
2. valued relationships.

Everything else - money, knowledge, possessions, skills, experiences...even our beliefs and actions - are means to achieve those two goals.

Living with meaning is a huge topic. One we've addressed in parts occasionally here which I expect we'll tackle more ambitiously in the future. But for now, I just want to point out that it's rooted within the individual. Each of us has to identify what "meaning" is for ourselves, and then determine how best to pursue it in our lives. (Much easier said than done, of course).

Valued relationships, on the other hand, are by definition interpersonal. As our podcast with Pulitzer prize-winning author Sebastian Junger explored, humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to co-exist in community with others. Deriving self-worth from our relationships is simply a fundamental feature of the human species. And the theme of the remainder of this article.

Some Learnings From The Big Picture View: A sad reality is that we often don't actively appreciate the value of our relationships until they're in jeopardy or lost for good. As mentioned earlier, Chris and I have both had recent reminders of this.

Chris lost a nephew a few weeks ago. 18 years old and died in his sleep of an undiagnosed congenital heart condition. A promising, accomplished, athletic young man who simply went to bed and never woke up. Pretty much any parent's worst nightmare.

In my case, my older daughter was at the beach a few days ago with some friends. One of them ran into the surf, dove into an incoming wave...and didn't resurface. His friends managed to drag him out of the water alive, but his neck was broken. He's currently in the hospital without use of his hands or legs.

Morbid stuff, I realize. But I'm not trying to depress you; there are a few worthwhile points to make here.

Don't Wait Until It's Too Late: Hearing from Chris about his nephew's death, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a few folks at our annual seminar back in April. In it, I was reflecting on a memorial service I had recently attended. The gentleman who died was older and not in good health, so his death wasn't a complete shock. He was also a little socially odd - a well-meaning guy, but with an overbearing approach that could be a little too much to handle for very long.

However, the memorial service was amazing. The sentiments shared about him by his friends and family were so wonderful, so loving, and so successful at capturing the best parts of his character to remember and honor. It wasn't false praise - it was all accurate material. Just the good stuff.

I left feeling lucky to have known him and sadder than I'd realized at losing him in my life. I mean this in all sincerity: if folks talk only half as nicely about me when I'm gone, I'd call that a big win. But the tragedy here is that I'm fairly confident the deceased gentleman heard little to none of this praise while he was alive. He very likely died ignorant of the positive influence he had made in the lives of many, instead thinking of himself as the guy others tried to avoid at parties. How sad is that?

That thought got me wondering: Why do we wait until after someone dies to honor them? To express the appreciation we leave unspoken during daily life due to familiarity, cultural norms, busy routine, distance, etc. Wouldn't it be more enjoyable and effective for everyone involved if our culture had a custom in which we celebrate the full measure of someone's life - and they actually get to participate in that celebration, and reflect their gratitude back?

When I raised this at the seminar, there was pretty much universal agreement that such a custom would be welcomed. And interestingly, there were a few folks who had actually experienced something like it. One had enjoyed a surprise 50th birthday party where his family and best friends from each stage of life had been flown in, each of whom spoke from the heart about how they valued him. He said it was a top life moment for him - every bit as meaningful as I was imagining it would be.

I love this idea of an "appreciation ceremony" and I *definitely* plan to do it for the most important folks in my life (wife, family members, close friends). And I'll hope, perhaps, some of them may do the same for me one day. But more generally, I take from all this - underscored by the stinging loss of Chris' nephew - a motivation to be more vocal, more frequently, with my appreciation for others.

Being honest, this won't come easily to me. Having grown up in an emotionally-restricted New England WASP household, the muscle history just isn't there for direct expression of high-intensity sentiment. But it will be healthy to work on. Those I care about will know that I care, why I care, and to the degree that I care. And I'll have the peace of mind of knowing that should a runaway bus take them - or me - tomorrow, the important stuff will not have been left unsaid.

Tragedy Can Bring Out Our Best Selves: I've spent much of the past 72-hours going back and forth from the hospital where my daughter's paralyzed friend is recovering. It's been very tough emotionally - especially watching his parents sit vigil. The situation is exactly like something out of a TV movie. This young man is a star scholar-athlete at the local high school and co-captain of the varsity football team. He's good-looking, charismatic and universally liked around town. His family has lived here for generations and are heavily involved in the community (his father was a local firefighter for 45 years). This tragedy could literally not happen to a nicer family.

As you can imagine, the outpouring of support from the community has been immense. Folks offering hugs, food, rides, child care, laundry services, fund raising, medical connections - you name it, it's being extended.

While sometimes overwhelming for the family, it is clear to see that the community support has been a crucial factor in keeping them from crumpling under the fear and stress resulting from the accident. I feel like I've had a front-row seat to witness the communal bonding process that Sebastian Junger describes in the podcast mentioned above.

Junger points out that humans evolved while living in tribes that needed to band together for survival against a hostile world (e.g., predators, other tribes, weather, famine). Humans have lived like this until very, very recently - historically speaking. Thus, his conclusion is that we are wired to live in connection with our community (our tribe), especially in ways that protect that community from adversity. So you can make the argument that community + adversity = authentic living. In other words, when we pull together with those around us in times of crisis, we are truly living as nature intended us to.

I am certainly seeing this in my present experience. The grace, the generosity, the selflessness, the love, the sense that we are all part of something larger than ourselves - it's astonishing to witness. Especially when compared to the radically more superficial way we all interacted beforehand. This crisis is giving people the permission and inspiration to "be" more real, more authentic, with each other. To be a tribe.

I've spent a lot of time over the past few days reflecting on Junger's tribal theory, and have decided to add the following addendum to it: While never desirable, adversity/tragedy gives us the opportunity to step into our best selves. Not everyone will. But we all have the chance to. And it's how we're designed to be.

I share all this partly as a little writing therapy to help me cope with the stress of the past few days, but more importantly, to give you some perspective that I hope will be useful in the years to come.

Understand what I mean when I say there are some very sizable disasters headed our way. They are mathematically unavoidable at this point. But while we can't control *what* will happen, we each can control *how* we will meet and react to it. Advance preparation is essential. But no plan is foolproof. Having the ability to deal with unexpected setbacks is also key - which a tribe helps immensely with."

"Find your tribe. Celebrate it in the moment. 
And bring out your best self in support of it.”
"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood,
 but of respect and joy in each other's life. 
Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof."
- Richard Bach, "Illusions: The Adventures of A Reluctant Messiah"

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