Yesterday afternoon while the toddlers were napping, I clothed myself in my metaphorical bearskin, armed myself with Visa and Discover cards, and made my way into the jungle of suburban commerce to get food for my mate and offspring.
There is a certain satisfaction to watching the groceries move down the checkout belt and knowing, "I worked to earn this food," which is disproportionate to the actual difficulty of obtaining food in our modern world of warehouse stores and supermarkets. Roughly speaking, 12-15% of my takehome income goes to paying for groceries and household consumable goods. Compared to the 35% that goes to the mortgage, the food budget just isn't that large a line item.
But you don't stand in line watching your house get rung up each month when you pay the mortgage. In fact, barring financial disaster, you don't really think about the mortgage at all, since the payment is the same every month and so as far as spending money goes, it's as if that income never existed in the first place. I think there may be more to it than that, though. There's a strong innate urge, as a father and provider, to make sure that everyone is fed. Physically seeing the food come in (even if you get it via supermarket rather than mastodon hunt) reassures you that you're doing your job. There it is. The fruit of my labor. This week we eat.
One could look at these as the left-over instincts of overgrown primates who long ago left behind the hunter and gatherer lifestyle, however I think there's actually a very important truth that these instincts touch on. There's a strong tendency in the modern world, because our means of achieving our goals in life are often so distanced from the actuals goals, to confuse proximate and ultimate goals.
At an animal level, our goal in life to to feed ourselves, mate, and raise healthy offspring to propagate the species. At a rational level, our goal is to understand ourselves, others, and the world and to appreciate truth and beauty. At a spiritual level, our goal is to know, love and serve God and be happy with him one day in heaven.
And yet, it's terribly easy to get hung up on proximate goals which may help us reach one of these ultimate goals. Some people think that it's a moral necessity to homeschool. Others that it's a parent's duty to get his or her children into the best schools and colleges. But in fact any school (home or institutional) is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Some may be better means than others, but they remain means.
One of my female coworkers commented to me recently (on hearing that my wife stayed at home with the kids), "I suppose I could afford to do that for a while, but it seems so important for everyone to have a good career." Now, there are a lot of good reasons to have a 'good career'. Income. Mental stimulation. Creative outlet. Competitive environment. Accomplishing an important service. But having a career in and of itself isn't an important thing. It's what you might accomplish by having a career that's important. If having a career is the best way to achieve one's ultimate goals, then clearly one should do so. But it's those goals, not the career itself, that are important.
Sitting at a dask doing web development or marketing analytics doesn't feel like directly providing for my family the way farming or ranching might. I do the work, I get paid, the pay gets deposited, we go shopping. But its the connection between what goes on at my desk and providing for the family that's actually important. There's not an objective value to climbing the corporate payscale separate from what it allows you to accomplish, either in work done or others provided for. Which is what I realize as I watch the groceries move through the checkout each week.
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