The Decent Drapery of Life

In a few months, the nation’s political contests will get underway in earnest.

That means the candidates who are out of office - Democrats in some races, Republicans in others - will raise the age-old question, “Are you better off now?”

When politicians pose this question, we know they are asking us to do a quick economic calculation. Is your salary higher? Is your home worth more? Is your net worth rising in value?

Politics aside, though, there is a problem with turning this “better off” question into a purely monetary equation. It neglects what Edmund Burke called “the decent drapery of life.”

You may not be earning more than you were four years ago. Your investment portfolio may not yield as much. It may not even have returned to its pre-financial crisis peak. But is that really how we determine whether we are better off?

Maybe you fell in love over the last few years. Maybe you took up fly-fishing. Maybe you moved to an exciting new city - or spent the last four years honoring your profession, learning more about it, helping more people than ever before.

Economic statistics are fine as far as they go. But they don’t measure a life well lived. The point isn’t just the grim determination to get and have more.

Columnist Peggy Noonan seems to agree. “In a way, the world is a great liar,” she writes. “It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better. That’s what it really admires. That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important. We don’t say, ‘The thing about Joe was that he was rich.’ We say, if we can, ‘The thing about Joe was he took care of people.’”

It doesn’t hurt to remember this. Because the one undeniable fact about the last four years is that you now have four less of them left.

Maybe the important thing is not to make more, have more or spend more but to slow down and appreciate small things, ordinary things: The first buds of spring. The town clock. The curl on your grandson’s forehead.

At 79, for instance, my dad suddenly became an avid birder. What a surprise. When I was growing up, his free time was all about playing golf, coaching Little League games or watching major league sports. He didn’t own a pair of binoculars. And he certainly couldn’t tell you the difference between a tufted titmouse and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

When we’re young, of course, we think we’re going to live forever. There isn’t time to notice these things. We have places to go, things to do.

“We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” wrote Paul Bowles near the end of his life. “Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20.”

Rushing from one appointment to the next, we use up our time, putting off the essential but non-urgent.

But in the second half - and no one knows when we reach that point exactly - life takes on a special poignancy precisely because our time is limited. It becomes richer and more meaningful because of it.

Are you better off than you were four years ago? Only you can determine what the question even means. But the answer shouldn’t require a calculator.

They understand this in Scotland. When I lived in St. Andrews years ago, the locals would often clink my glass, give a wink and announce in that distinctive Scottish brogue:

“Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”

Carpe diem,

Alex

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