Having Everything and Having Nothing

We were passing through Vail the other day on the way to a camping trip and stopped off at a 7-Eleven to stretch our legs and see what the big 7 had to offer (not much). On a whim, while purchasing a few comics for the boys, I threw two dollars on the counter and said “two, quick picks.” This is a silly but entertaining thing I do maybe once every 2 years. Part teaching opportunity, part mental exercise, the purchase of a lottery ticket always sparks conversations that evolve in interesting ways.

This year, with the hurricane in Texas, I was able to think in two realms. Having a lot and having nothing.

Having a Lot

Being able to buy anything you want is always — or at least most times — the fantasy of those purchasing lottery tickets. I would venture to say most people aren’t walking away from the counter pondering how great it would be to win that money so they could sock it away and not touch it for 30 years. Certainly, you could do this wool gathering any time, ticket or not. But with a ticket in hand, it feels closer and so you ask yourself, “what would I do if I won that money” with a little more seriousness. And, I would suppose, a little more hope.

The interesting thing this time was I actually thought putting it away as the best option. Sure, I’d pay off some debt, use a little to get a motorcycle again, but beyond that, I wanted to put it away to grow so it would be there for my boys. College is approaching and, although I am not worried so much about paying for it, it would certainly be nice to be able to know for certain that things will be all right. Because isn’t that what we look for? It’s not *really* the money itself, but the freedom, certainty, the known or expected.

Culling ideas down to what is most most important to us is usually the end result. It’s kind of the essence of going through this process. You suddenly bring your priorities into sharp clarity. In the beginning our thoughts are frivolous and irresponsible, but inevitably, they become more reasoned and self-disciplined.

The conversation also often turns to those who have actually won the jackpot. Or at least the ones that make the news by letting the money destroy their lives and are in jail, destitute or find themselves in some other unpleasant end result. “Oh, now, I wouldn’t let that happen to me” we all say, but do you really know? Instant wealth, in a capitalist society, is a strange and unpredictable thing. On the periphery of my thoughts, I always wonder who would come knocking with their hand out. No doubt there would be many.

A man I know became extremely wealthy by working hard and being in the right place at the right time in his industry. While the rise wasn’t fast, it was fast enough and the company was wildly successful until he sold it. I saw over time that there was a constant stream of people who tried to get “close” to him. I also realized that those people weren’t really out to be his friend or make the company better (some were, but very few), they were hoping that either some of it would rub off or he’d toss them a large wad of bills over his shoulder.

None of this happened of course, reality just doesn’t work that way. A few tried to get lightening to strike twice by doing what he did after they’d left the company. They all failed. The reality was that the wealth doesn’t trickle down, instant money doesn’t exist and there’s no such thing as being able to hook up a money hose to your bank account. Except when you win the lottery.

But can you win the lottery? Well, some obviously do, but there is the wisdom that says the lottery is just a tax on those who don’t understand math. I studied math in college and each time I buy the ticket I know I am paying that tax. Think about it. The chance of winning is about .000000192%. That’s an exceedingly small number. In some of my math classes, we would call that zero. And so can you.

You actually have a better chance of becoming a billionaire; about .00001%, that’s 1 in 1,000,000. Still pretty close to zero, but better than 1 in 5,200,000 wouldn’t you say? And how many of us really think we’re going to become billionaires. But don’t let that stop you from purchasing a ticket every so often. Go ahead, waste a buck then run through the mental exercise of what you would do. It has a way of clarifying what’s really important in life…and you may find it isn’t money.

Having nothing

The news is coming in about hurricane Ike and it’s bad behavior down in Texas. It sounds like it’s pretty awful for many. Some were spared, some lost everything and I don’t care who you are. If you are human, when you hear of someone losing everything, you feel it.

There is a certain giddy joy a person feels when thinking about winning the lottery, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, what would it be like to return to a house that had become a pile of splintered lumber. Would I have packed everything in my car that I really needed? Were my decisions the right ones for what to take and what to leave? Seeing the devastation and the random nature by which houses were selected for destruction, it’s hard to imagine it at all and it’s just as hard, as with the lottery, to really know how it would truly effect you.

A friend lives in San Diego whose neighborhood was hit by the wild fires last year. Of just seven houses that didn’t burn in the neighborhood, his was one of them. Imagine the relief at having been spared mingling with the pain of seeing your neighbors’ houses reduced to cinders.

This mental exercise is surely easier to do without anything like a lottery ticket to bring it on. We hear of disasters where someone loses everything in just a few hours and we by nature put ourselves in their place. What would I do, how quickly could I figure out what to bring.

Often homeowners are advised to make video of all belongings, make a list of important documents, prioritize what you would take at a moment’s notice and make a plan for what you would do in the aftermath. How many of us really do that? I suspect not many.

Coming on the heals of this thought one might imagine selling, giving away or throwing out all but the essentials by choice. What would that be like? There was a friend of mine a few years ago who was moving to the upper Northwest. The plan was to spend time in Washington and Canada skiing during the winter, and in the summers they would head to Hawaii to surf on the beaches of The Big Island and Oahu. So that’s what they did….and they’ve been doing it for the last three years.

On their way out of town, they stopped by my house to drop off a few last things they had saved for us. Every belonging they had to their name was in the back of their Ford Explorer. Everything. Looking out the door at the packed car, I felt a little envious. Not necessarily at the thought of being able to go anywhere without a tether to someplace else (although that did appeal to me on some level.) It was more a longing to have my priorities in such alignment that I knew just the few things I really needed in life and the rest was just window dressing.

I think people know deep down, what makes a person special is not what they wear, how much their car cost or how big their bank account is. And even though the marketers would like to keep you believing that you really need a device that holds 20,000 songs, even though most probably don’t even own 20,000 songs (let alone good ones), it boils down to what you hold most dear.

On the matter of material things, what are those few items that, if they were gone, would rend your world asunder. If you can think of just 100 things, or you can fit it all into the back of a Ford Explorer, perhaps you’ve done something special.

The plight of the people in Texas is saddening. It’s hard enough sometimes with all the bad news we are inundated with on a daily basis. Someone, today, has to also endeavor to keep going even though their house and everything in it is gone.

Having everything taken unexpectedly is one of the worst things I can imagine. Wouldn’t it be interesting, before that happens, to figure out what I don’t need? What attachments to things I can let go of? How much could I reduce the footprint of my stuff? After all, we are only borrowing it while we’re here anyway.