How Do You Measure the “Wealth” in Your Life?

When my wife and I moved abroad in 2001, we left a trail of what we thought were our life’s most important possessions behind us.

In a storage locker, appliances and keepsakes we were sure we’d need when we “settled down” overseas. In the basements and spare rooms of several good and very patient friends, furniture, art, and books we thought were the stuff of our emotional and cultural lives, that we’d need to have around us someday, wherever we were on the planet.

After a few years abroad, we put together a truck-load of what we thought was the most important of that and had it hauled to us in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we thought we were putting down roots.

When the boxes finally arrived, they filled an entire room. And as we unpacked them and sorted through the contents, over and over again we said, “What were we thinking?”

After a few years out in the world, traveling, exploring, seeing life from so many new perspectives, we couldn’t for the life of us remember why we thought some of that bric-a-brac was so important to our lives.

With the benefit of experience and perspective, we realized the stuff we thought defined us and made our lives worthwhile turned out to be just stuff. Some of it was expensive. Some of it was rare. Some of it had wonderful memories attached to it.

But we realized as we unpacked that none of it made us what we were or defined our real wealth or status. Other possessions did that…and we’d been carrying those with us the whole time.

They were…and are…our friendships with people all over the world, our own sense of adventure and wonder about the world, and the sense of community we have with like-minded people around the world.

They weigh nothing, they cost nothing, they take up no space. But they make life worth living.

Over the next few years, every time we took a trip back home, we’d go through that storage locker and sift through our friends’ spare rooms and cull those material possessions we once thought we needed so badly to be happy. Inevitably, we’d either donate or throw out half of the stuff.

A couple years ago, we made a final pass. Some photos and books went here, some high school and college memorabilia went there…and our storage locker was empty. Our long-suffering friends got their spare rooms back.

We have discovered that the endless stream of material things our consumer culture tells us is the sole measure of our worth has nothing to do with who we really are and what we are really worth.

This is an incredible feeling of liberation.

We now live in a condo of roughly 1,000 square feet, and we can see nearly every single one of our personal material possessions in one glance. That condo is in a little craft village high up in the Andes Mountains where the weather demands neither heating nor air-conditioning at any time of the year. Around the village, families work farmsteads where fresh produce, poultry, and meat are brought to the local market every day, sometimes on foot. If the planes stopped flying and the gas stopped flowing tomorrow, those farmers would still work their land and walk their produce into the market.

And when it’s time for us to travel somewhere, we can lock and leave that condo in less than an hour, knowing that the community of friends and neighbors we have around us will watch it and take care of it for us until we get back.

Coming to this realization…that life is not measured by physical stuff…was a bit like slowly waking up from a long dream. The dream was an endless stream of commercials advertising products that, if we’d only buy them, would make us happier, sexier, more powerful, more admired, more confident, more…more…more…

The waking up was realizing that the dream was just that…an illusion. An empty promise. A mantra constantly chanted by advertisers to hypnotize us into believing we can’t possibly be the people we want to be without buying their products.

Well, we are the people we want to be, and the things that make us what we want to be don’t sit in a garage or next to a dock or in a bank vault or gleam from our wrists or around our necks.

They’re in our hearts and heads, and in our friends, and in our community.

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