I Want More Than a Happy Family. Is That Wrong?

My two oldest sons compete over everything.

It drives me nuts.

It makes me proud.

They fight to near death to see:

  • Who can get out of the vehicle the fastest.
  • Who can stay out front on family bike rides.
  • Who can get clipped up the highest in school for good behavior.
  • Who can swing highest on the swingset.
  • Who can jump the farthest from the swingset.
  • Who can fracture the most bones when jumping from the swingset.
  • Who can tally the most medical bills.

Arghh…it’s endless!

Well, not really.

They do draw the line at seeing who can eat the most vegetables.  

When the competition gets too fierce I finally say something along the lines of,“Guys, everything is not a contest!”

Feeling like a hypocrite the whole time.    

Because the truth is, even at forty, I’m just like them.

“Don’t You Have Enough?”

As a midlifer with four small children, my weekly schedule is jam-packed.

Every day is a blur.

I run like a madman each day just to maintain the status quo.

Someone recently asked me how I manage to find time to write and build an online business with all these other plates spinning in my life.

When I told them I get up at 4 am and work before the kids come downstairs, they looked at me incredulously and asked, “Why? Why do you push yourself that hard? You have a beautiful family, a stable job, a good social life. Don’t you have enough to be satisfied?”

No. I don’t.

I want more.

There. I said it.

Scrooge’s One Shot at Love

There is a scene in A Christmas Carol in which The Ghost of Christmas Past forces Ebenezer Scrooge to look at the carnage that follows when one puts work above family.

Earlier in the story Scrooge allowed his dowerless fiance, Belle, to walk out of his life. He did so that he might be free to pursue wealth, prosperity, and status unencumbered by her lack of social standing.

In other words, he wanted more than just a happy family.

His strategy worked to perfection.

Through monomaniacal hustle and shrewd business tactics, Scrooge grew a business, beat out the competition, and became a leading businessman in the city.

He got what he wanted.

So did Belle.

She went on to marry, have children, and build a loving family.

As the Ghost forces Scrooge to observe the stark contrast between what they’ve both become, the businessman fully realizes the steep price he’s paid for his pursuit of gain and becomes overwhelmed with regret.

His years of toil have earned him a case full of trophies and a heart empty of peace. Now at an advanced age, his precious possessions make a shoddy defense against the unrelenting loneliness that is now his sole companion.  

If only he could go back in time, beg Belle’s forgiveness, spurn the life materialism, and give his life to things that truly matter.  

I teach this novel every year as part of my school’s curriculum. And each year I’m thankful for the reminder that the best things in life don’t cost money. Furthermore, no amount of possessions can replace higher values such as family, faith, and friendships.

And if these things are metrics of true wealth, I’m set for life.  

With four children and a wife that I get to eat dinner with every night, I live the life of Belle.

And I’m grateful.

What more could I ask for?

Where Drive Comes From

Ironically enough, there’s another novel I teach concurrently with A Christmas Carol that has a different theme altogether. It’s Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.

While A Christmas Carol lectures us to thumb our noses at such shallow-minded notions as wealth and achievement in favor of benevolence and family, London’s book argues that we are helpless in fending off our drive to conquer, overcome, and always reach for more.

This urge, according to London, has its roots in the ancient “wild” in all of us and can never be tamed.  

In one particular passage he says it like this through his main character, a sled dog named Buck:

“He (Buck) wanted it because it was his nature, because he had been gripped tight by that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace – that pride which holds dogs in the toil to the last gasp, which lures them to die joyfully in the harness, and breaks their hearts if they are cut out of the harness.”

In this passage we see a dog strapped to his weight, in the fray, pulling with all of his might toward a goal.

The animal is doing the work he was born to do. The fact that the sled he’s pulling may be doing nothing more than delivering mail to broken down miners is unimportant.

What matters to the dog is that he’s doing that thing that makes him feel alive.  

Take that away from him and you might as well cut his throat.

I know the feeling.

The Flip Side Of The Sidelines

Two years ago I made a big career shift that cut me out of the traces so to speak.

At the time I was leading a nonprofit that I founded seven years earlier.

Although the work was difficult, it was also very fulfilling.

I was leading people, tackling complex projects, and motivating a team to reach goals bigger than all of us.   

Because we were doing something big, something significant, something fulfilling, even when we fell short, it felt as if we were succeeding.

During this seven-year stretch, I was living out my calling in the truest sense of the word.

It was exhausting and demanding and awesome. It felt great to be in the traces.  

Until it didn’t.

When the long hours, overwhelming goals, and weight of responsibility meshed with major challenges that snowballed in my personal life, I began a two-year downward spiral of burnout that culminated in depression.

Therefore, as much as it pained me to do so, in an effort to save my health and my family, I turned my back on my calling, left the traces, and moved back to my hometown.

It was a great decision.

Back home I settled into teaching junior high English as my only job.

I wasn’t leading people, I wasn’t guiding expeditions to the top of Mt. Everest, I wasn’t raising money for charitable causes.

I wasn’t in the traces. I was resting on the sidelines.

The convalescence was good for me and in time I got better.   

At first, I had it in my mind that I was finished with the whole dream chasing thing. It cost too much, hurt too badly, and the probability of success was far too low.

Instead, I was going to toil away quietly in the classroom and live happily ever after in domestic bliss with my wife and four children.

Just like they do in the movies.

While this idea makes for a good (albeit cliche) movie script, it rarely works this way in real life as I soon found out.  

Sure enough, as I began to feel better I also began to feel something else.

That “nameless” and “incomprehensible” desire to achieve once again.

I began to feel that old feeling to compete, to do work that matters, to live out my calling.

The “trail and trace” beckoned, I guess you could say.

But there was one major problem, a midlife problem.

There was no “trail and trace” to be had.

There were no nonprofits to start, no one was calling and looking to bring me onto their dream team, there were no quests that I could find to be a part of.

I was smack dab in the middle of that weird midlife transition during which family responsibilities, financial restraints, and a lack of qualifications, squeezes out opportunity and limits vocational mobility.   

I felt as if I was just a forty-year-old burned out has-been who had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  

Forty-Year-Old Fraud

During this time, I fought feelings of worthlessness and insignificance. I felt like a fraud. Here I was at forty toiling away in an obscure classroom, collecting a paycheck that was too small to adequately support my wife and four children.

(Although I do appreciate the significance being a classroom teacher and enjoy many aspects of the job, it is not my “trail and trace.”)

Consequently, my lack of vocational success spilled over into other areas of my psyche.

I began to feel like less of a father and husband.

I couldn’t stop the barrage of self-imposed questions such as:

  • What am I accomplishing of significance that makes my kids proud of their dad?
  • What does it say about me as a man that I can’t earn a salary sufficient enough to provide for the children I brought into the world?
  • What kind of husband puts his wife in the position to have to pull all-nighters as a freelancer just to make sure we have groceries for the week?  

Although this line of thinking may seem petty to some, it’s no small thing to most men.

If a man is failing vocationally, you can bet he also feels as if he’s failing at life.

Often a man doesn’t know why he’s mad at the world and wants to leave it all and start over, but many times it’s because he feels like a failure at work.

Therefore, not only is it insensitive to counsel a man to NOT find his identity in his work, it’s also naive and dangerous.

First of all, it’s naive in that while you might shame a man into sacrificing his desire to achieve vocationally for a season, you’ll never snuff out this craving ultimately. The reason is that the want of respect due to the work of one’s hands is an ancient urge that’s impossible to completely remove from the hardware of a man’s soul.

All you can hope to do is push it further and further beneath the surface. And that’s just as unhealthy as giving in to it with reckless abandon.

Secondly, Insisting that a man find his identity outside of his work is dangerous because it can lead to the kind of male apathy swings wide a huge door that invites all manner of self-inflicting behaviors.  

I’m well aware that vocational success as one’s ONLY source of identity can lead to workaholism and a slew of other damaging behaviors, but I also can’t help but wonder how many families have been fractured and destructive habits picked up because a man was convinced to stop looking for his “trail and trace.”

(It’s also noteworthy that pearls of wisdom such as “don’t look for your identity in your work” are usually disseminated by people whose professional and financial lives are clicking along quite nicely.)

There Are Worse Things

A few days ago my oldest son, backpack askew, Captain Underpants book in hand, glasses bouncing up and down on his nose, labored to catch his younger brother in a footrace to my classroom door.

He didn’t.

He lost.

What’s worse than losing a footrace to your younger brother?

Hayden celebrated, while Scotty lamented.

“Daddy, he beat me!”, Scotty wailed.

Instead of my usual “Everything is not a contest” line, I changed it.

I said, “Son, when you compete, sometimes you’re just going to get beat and it’s not fun. But it feels a whole lot better than not competing at all. Trust me.”

I hope I told him right.

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