A Simple Story

How often have we heard the advice to seize the day, live life to the fullest, live like you're dying? I'd venture to say the typical person runs across that concept at least a half a dozen times a year; so often that it has become trite. But what does it really mean? 

Are we to go sky diving over the Grand Canyon? Kayaking on the Amazon? Risk our lives eating blow-fish? Not if we really internalize what this advice means. Seizing the day means living fully human lives. In Plato's terms, we are to become true to our form. Plato believed everything was more or less a shadow of its original form and the closer we got to our human form, our ideal, the more fully human we became.

This though is where we get into trouble, especially in the West where commercialism and consumerism have taken such a firm hold of our collective psyches. We have heard that money can't buy happiness, but we have also heard that it is hard to be happy without it. Now more than ever we need to stop and analyze what will provide us with a full life, a life truly lived in the moment, for the moment.

Below is a version of a story I keep running into lately, on blogs, in articles on the radio. It is one that you may have even heard before, but I think in light of this discussion it bears repeating.

One day a well off, but over-worked, investment banker took an adventure traveling trip to a small island in Indonesia where he happened upon a fisherman in a local village. The two struck up a casual conversation at a little street side cafe. Over a cup of strong coffee the banker mused aloud about whether or not he could live life at this kind of relaxed pace.

"I come from a large city with lots of people, noise, distractions, you name it.  This past week has been so different for me. Really eye-opening. The peace and quiet I have experienced on your island have been completely restorative. I feel like I can go conquer the world. But, I wonder if I could really live like this full time. Life seems so simple. What is it that you do here day after day?"

After pausing a moment while seeming to look to the open blue sky for an answer, the fishermen leveled his gaze on the banker and replied.

"Well, I fish in the morning. Then, I go into town to drink and play cards with my friends. I take a nap in the afternoon and then spend the rest of the day with my wife and family eating, talking and relaxing."

Their conversation went on from there for a few pleasant minutes but then, as he was starving from an afternoon of trekking, the banker asked the fisherman if he knew of someplace where he could buy a filling meal. The fisherman told him that his wife, in fact, had a small stand down the street where she cooked and sold his catch of the day to tourists. The investment banker thanked him and headed down the street. 

A half an hour later, after eating the best tasting fish of his life, he was back at the cafe looking for that fisherman. After inquiring of the locals for a few minutes he found his new acquaintance at a small bar with a few friends.

"That fish was absolutely amazing! I have never heard of, or tasted, anything like it before. You must be one of the only fisherman in the world to catch and prepare it. Do you sell it to the mainland?" he asked.

"No, it is only sold here, on the island."

"I really think I could help you here. With a little marketing and entrepreneurship you could market this fish throughout all of Indonesia, maybe even the world if you got lucky."

"How would I do that?"

"Well, first you'd need to go to the mainland and into the city to find some investors buy more boats and hire some additional fisherman to increase your yield. If you started fishing both morning and afternoon with extra boats you could catch enough to supply more than one food stand for local tourists. Your wife could manage that part of the operation in the beginning. She would need to find a few more local areas to set up shop and she would need to hire and manage a few more employees to work as cooks and servers."

"OK, then what?"

"Then you'd need to start aggressively marketing your brand throughout the region. You'd take the extra money you made from the additional food stands and hire a marketing firm to raise brand consciousness. As  more and more people grew to love your fish, and trust me they will, you'll probably have to step up production. From what I understand island fish tend to be more plentiful the deeper out to sea you look, so you may need to start multi-day excursions to meet demand."

"How long will this take?"

Well between ramping up production, opening new stands and then spreading throughout the region, you are probably looking at about a ten year project. But then once this type of fish catches on with buyers you could think about franchising the operation. Setting up a successful franchise that expands globally could take another 10 years. However, with a little good fortune along the way you could be looking at a world wide franchise.  Then you could just sit back and watch the profits roll in. Believe me, I do this for a living; it could work. All in all you are looking at 20 years tops to build a business that allows you the freedom to do anything!"

"Like what?"

"Well, you could relax, drink with your friends and enjoy your family for the rest of your days."

At which point the fisherman thanked the banker for his advice and returned to his friends none the wiser.

We have all heard this anecdote before, or at least some version of it. The narrative and the message are universal. I wanted to share this simple story as it illustrates so well what I am trying to communicate with this writing project: that a life lived simply, in accordance with virtue, can lead to the highest degree of happiness. We do not need to keep chasing after dreams of riches and glory if we can learn to appreciate that most of us, especially those of us blessed to live in the wealthy west, have all we could ever need already.

Too many of us push off until retirement the idea of rest and relaxation; spending time with family and friends. But we do not need to wait. We just need to alter our priorities using the time honored virtues of prudence and moderation.  Real freedom originates in being free of attachments to material goods and their pursuit just as much as it means freedom from want.

If you only had five years left on this earth what would you be doing today? If the end came tomorrow, what would you miss? Maybe it is time to re-evaluate what makes you fully human, and truly seize the day.