Wednesday, June 18, 2014

You're ahead of me? So, uh, where are you going?

I went to California over the Presidents Day weekend earlier this year. Drive there on Friday, return on Monday, the holiday. 22 hours of driving altogether. I had suggested that we fly, but Alice wanted to see the countryside. It seemed doable, but on reflection, it is better to fly, even with the expense of airfare. Unless we're going to be away for a week or more, driving isn't worth the effort.

While I was driving, I noticed that speeds on the highway were higher than before. There are long stretches of Interstate 15 in Utah that post an 80 mph speed limit. That is a very high rate of travel for most people, so I was surprised to see that while I had cruise control set at 80, I was in the right lane while people were passing me. I just don't see any point in going much faster at that speed. The cost of gas simply doesn't outweigh the time saved, and the margins for error become much thinner at that speed and higher.

Even while doing 80, I noticed that people were tailgating me. So I'd move over and let them pass if I could not overtake a slower vehicle fast enough for the tailgater's patience. Mostly, I'd drive right, and pass on the left, that's one of those "rules of the road".

As I watched this process over and over again, I began to notice, as I usually do, that cars that I had passed before, I passed again after a brief bathroom break. Sometimes these were people that passed me earlier. Like the Volkswagen Jetta driver that I passed once, and passed again after a potty break, but the second time, he was having an extended conversation with the highway patrol.

I really don't understand how anyone could get a ticket on the 15. It's a wide open road and there is plenty of room to hang out in the right lane, even at 80 mph. Yet, people still managed to get the attention of the highway patrol. I've seen them riding alongside me at greater than the speed limit here and there in the city, so I think they are on the lookout more for stupidity than just plain speeding.

As I watched people passing me, sometimes in a huff, I had to wonder, where are you going? I know we're all going somewhere, but what kind of a hurry could you be in if you're going that fast? Eventually, you'll take a potty break and I'll pass you. Then I'll take a potty break and you'll pass me. We'll do this dance on the highway as we pass each other, two cars on the highway. You'll still be on the same planet now, won't you?

But then as I was driving, my mind turned to the billionaires on the planet. They have made more money than most people can dream of. Where are they going to go with it? We'll see them time and again in the news, but where are they going? How does making more money make them any happier than they are now?

The following quote (often wrongfully attributed to George Carlin) said it best:
"Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body." --- The Vision of Buddhism: The Space Under the Tree, by Roger J. Corless (paraphrased)
Going faster, doesn't necessarily satisfy the mind unless it is faster than somebody else. Without a point of reference, you don't really get a sense of the speed. Even then, what satisfaction do we really ascribe to going faster? The sensation of seeing this great land of ours go by faster isn't nearly as satisfying as passing the VW Van poking along at about 60mph.

The same is true for money. For many people, making more money is nice, but making more money than *other* people is better. While most people may have this desire in moderation, very wealthy people can have this desire in spades, to the point of addiction. Research has been done on this topic to show that a) after $75k, what's the use of working longer hours to earn more money? and b) most people would rather hold other people down while making the same amount of money than to be making more money than before, but with other people making still more money.

I know, it's confusing. But don't worry. Einstein said that everything is relative.

If you look at what other people are doing, you'll think you should be doing that, too, and wonder why you're not doing it. So you're neighbor just bought a Ferarri? And now you're worried that somehow you missed the boat? That you should do that too or you'll be left behind? Believe me, if you're surprised that someone bought a car for $200k in your neighborhood, you shouldn't be surprised when he moves. That kind of money for a car means a better house in the very near future.

More to the point, everyone has a different path. Some of us are destined to be rich. Some of may simply have a greater tendency to be rich. Some of us were born into rich families. But what is really important to understand is that money doesn't make you a better person than someone else. Just ask Lloyd Blankenfein, one of the masterminds behind the financial meltdown of 2008. He's fabulously wealthy, but he has the kind of conscience that says it's OK to bet that millions of people will default on their mortgages.

In fact, I'm not even sure if being a better person is a worthy goal in the relative sense. I can't be a better person than someone else. I can only take actions that help me to find happiness. I try to err on the side of peace. I consider others before I speak. I treat others as I would like to be treated. I view people with the lens of compassion before anything else.

When I think of being a better person, I think of being a better person than I was yesterday - not if I'm better than someone else. The man I am today runs rings around the man I was mumble-mumble years ago. I'm more efficient in the sense that I have learned the hardship of chasing trivial pursuits. Often, what was important to me in the past, is no longer important to me now. What makes me a better person is not how much money I have in the bank, or the car I drive, or even which celebrities I happen to know. Nowadays, my measure is the number of days in a row without drama.

Wherever I happen to be going, I don't have to get there faster than you, because where I'm going is a state mind and nothing more. That state of mind is peace. Would you care to join me here, in peace? I hope so.
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