Warning: this article contains spoilers of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. And while I’ve touched on this theme in “The Ten Commandments of Early Retirement,” I thought it important enough to elaborate on.
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel—which the Coen brothers made into a film by the same name—an ex-welder named Llewelyn Moss is fleeing westwards across Texas with a suitcase of stolen money, exhausted and alone, when he picks up a hitchhiker to take a spell behind the wheel. It’s a teenaged girl, likewise fleeing westwards, but nobody’s chasing her. Instead, she’s trying to escape her old life so she can reinvent herself elsewhere anew.
Moss and the girl stop at a truckstop diner, where over a cheeseburger he tries to convince her that life on the road is far too dangerous for someone so naive, and besides, geographical cures never work.
You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it’s made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who’s layin there?
I want to put it to you that if you’re chasing early retirement you need to consider whether you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. And by using the word “wrong” in this context, I mean for reasons that may have nothing to do with your current situation. In other words, are you using early retirement as a proxy geographical cure?
Our subconscious minds are good at telling us, “I’m in pain and I need drastic change.” Now: I’m not in any way suggesting you’re suicidal, but that subconscious message is often what motivates people to fantasize—and only fantasize—about killing themselves. But it’s only symbolism: destroying and then reinventing the self in hopes of finding happiness elsewhere.
So think about this: in pursuing early retirement are you primarily trying to move away from negativity, or towards positivity?
Those motives aren’t mutually exclusive, of course…it’s some of both for everyone…but if your motivation skews towards the negative, you need to do some hard self-reflection. Maybe…maybe…your problems arise from you yourself rather than from your surroundings.
I still wonder if working so hard towards early retirement was a mistake for me.
Roughly eight years after leaving the workforce I got depressed…way depressed…and a therapist helped me see that during all those years I was corporate, my journey to early retirement had indeed been more negative than positive, and I’d been attempting a kind of geographical cure the whole time.
I mean: when I split, I split. I was living in a major northeastern city at the time, and I quit my job, sold my house, yard-sold the bulk of my stuff, severed ties with all but a few close friends, and got the hell out of there.
Drastic change, yes?
Seriously: I don’t even remember most of my career. Thirteen years of daily events, the short and long-term ups and downs of the business cycle, all the meetings…and sure, all that stuff would come back to me if some old coworkers and I sat down over drinks and shot the shit about back in the day, but left to my own I’ve had very little reason to think about any of it, except to the degree that those people and events taught me life lessons and affected my own personal ethics and philosophy.
But now, having spent a lot of time working through a couple of serious personal problems—forgive me if I don’t get into the specifics—I’ve come to understand that in large part I got depressed because although I’d managed to destroy my old life, I hadn’t cured my problems at all, but rather—as Moss told the teenaged hitchhiker:
It’s not about knowin where you are. It’s about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody’s. You dont start over. That’s what it’s about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it.
And so: to throw out that Buddhist aphorism that attachment is the cause of suffering, I still wonder how my life would be different if I’d spent as much time working on myself as I did on my escape plan. Maybe I’d still be in that same job, but happy in life rather than miserable.
Obviously what I’ve just laid out may or may not apply to your own situation. But if that situation’s uncomfortable for you, can I suggest that as you work your way out of your career you at least get some perspective on it from a counselor? You might discover that your current life isn’t so bad after all.
One more quote—damn, man, I seem to be larding up this thing with a lot of other people’s words—and I’ll wrap this thing up. This time it’s from Stephen King’s Insomnia, where the main character is watching his neighbors go through a drastic change of their own—a bitter divorce.
“How much courage does it take to fire up your tractor and plow under a crop you spent six or seven years growing? he asked himself. How much courage to go on and do that after you’ve spent all that time finding out how to prepare the soil and when to plant and how much to water and when to reap? How much to just say, ‘I have to quit these peas, peas are no good for me, I better try corn or beans.’
‘A lot,’ he said, wiping at the corners of his eyes again. ‘A damn lot, that’s what I think.’
So think about that. Because it could be that there are ways to make your current life much more enjoyable; a source of satisfaction and happiness rather than a source of pain. Tools and such to acquire and put into practice, etc.
Stuff I wish I’d known back when I was mistaking my early retirement plan for myself.