Maybe it’s a midlife thing, because it never bothered me ten years ago, but now that I’m in my forties I find myself comparing my life to others in my age bracket. It surprises me because I have never been a person easily swayed by peer pressure, but here I am a full-grown adult asking questions I never thought I would ask.
When I am in my own compact world, where things are more predictable, neat and tidy I am less inclined to engage in the mental debates, but out of my element I become more enticed. I am a walker, so when I’m visiting another community, as Claudia and I are doing for the past few days through tomorrow, I begin the mental meanderings.
Tonight we had a most unusual Saturday night. Because of my pastoral responsibilities on Sunday mornings, it is usual for us to be close to home on a Saturday night. Often we have friends over for dinner and such, but usually by 8:30 or so we have done our socializing and everyone is one their way home. This Saturday night, however, since I am not preaching tomorrow morning, the time is less structured and more relaxed, which is a gift. But it is also a little disorienting.
We had the opportunity to eat dinner with other professionals from the adoption conference we are attending, and then enjoyed some post-dinner conversation. It was an enjoyable time. After returning to the hotel Claudia hunkered down with email, and I decided to take a whole-hearted walk, more than a casual stroll, less than a jog, it has produced very good results in dropping my blood sugar levels, which for a diabetic is always a plus.
Observing the way other people spend their Saturday nights reminds me of how different my life is from theirs. Granted, the area in which I walked is probably the wealthiest area in Tampa, so it is not representative of all residents, but it is a different experience than walking in even the most affluent areas of our university town population less than 55,000. One of the first ways I notice is with the type of vehicle being driven around the area. Shiny, expensive, cars and limousines shuttle well-coiffeured, expensively dressed people from luxury hotels to prime dining spots. A block or so away from the hotel in which we are staying (which is not the top of the luxury line but getting there) are condominiums “starting in the mid-200’s,” a full $100,000 more than we paid for our home we purchased a year ago. In this area homes with a square-footage 1,000 less than ours are priced two and three times the value of our home, on lots 25% as large as ours. Niche restaurants tout entrees at $30 and $40 more than we would pay in the nicer establishments in our home town.
And so I begin to wonder, to question myself as I compare my life to that of my peers. I am well-educated (an earned master’s and doctoral coursework completed), well placed in my profession (in a marvelous congregation open to change and growing), and respected in the community. But I do not own a shiny new vehicle of any kind. Of our three vehicles, one is a ten-year-old van that is battered beyond recognition but which provides very cheap transportation, a seven-year-old car that has 185,000 miles on it and which needs to last another three or four years, and a two-year-old van which is nice enough but certainly nothing special. The home we live in is fifty years old and shows its age, while I am not personally skilled enough nor wealthy enough to initiate some of the changes it really needs. We eat at home regularly and occasionally when we do go out to eat we seek the most reasonable eating experience we can find.
Some of my peers are already retiring, having invested the money they earned in the 1990s wisely. Some of them have a second home, or a place that is a “getaway” location, while we are only into our first year of living in a home that is ours.
But the biggest difference is that we have children, and as I look around this affluent neighborhood on this Saturday night, I realize the shocking absence of children. As I walk I see the occasional child or two with parents, but generally it is well-heeled adults entertaining themselves with other adults.
And so I wonder how much of my life I have chosen to relinquish because Claudia and I have decided to parent ten children. What kind of vehicle might I be driving if we had only the average 2.5 (or whatever it is now) children in American homes? Or what kind of second home might we be able to afford for mini-getaways? Where could we be eating, how could we be entertaining ourselves, what would like be like with a more controlled, “normal” life.
Of course, it doesn’t help my internal revelry when the children (not all of them, but some) in my home ask why we don’t have a jet ski, or a boat, or a dirt bike, or a snowmobile, or a large-screen television, or a summer cabin, or a camper, or a newer car or a better van. My typical reply is, “Those aren’t things we really need,” although sometimes I make a stronger statement by saying, “Well, we’ve chosen to raise children, and they are more important to us than material possessions.”
And it’s true. Our values are different than those around us, which makes for unusual and challenging times frequently. While it is true that our family will never ride in a limousine or own a Mercedes, and while we will not have the opportunity to retreat for most of the summer in a cabin or cottage miles away on a restive lake, we are investing in something far more different, far more valuable, and far less certain. It would be easier to have material possessions to “show” for our efforts, but we are investing in children. And that’s a value that simply does not compute very well in the world in which I live.