I recently found myself out of place, i.e., at an art exhibition. My default strategy: grab a plastic flute of the free champagne, find a neutral corner, decline the hors d’oeuvres, ignore the art, watch the people. I was soon joined by a kindred spirit.
The Brit was clad in the standard issue ‘English country gentleman’ attire: well-worn wools and weathered loafers. After a quiet nod, we waded into a quiet conversation.
After he learned I was a writer, he explained that he was working with his city council (or the English equivalent) to preserve and renovate some of the historic buildings near his home. It had turned into a full time job, and he was surprised how much he enjoyed it.
The hours were erratic, but could be long. Rounding up a consensus among the citizens could be challenging, as common sense often took a back seat to petty grudges from a decade ago. But progress had been made, and the village (or town, I’m not sure what it was actually called) was looking better, preserving it’s architectural heritage, and attracting families and professionals with small offices.
How’s the pay? I ask sardonically. He replied he’d be on the street with his hand out if he relied on the town to pay him a wage. He verbally strolled around facts: his family had been there for ‘quite a long time’, he felt he had a ‘duty’ to ‘hold up the side’.
The signet ring on his pinky, I quickly surmised, was not a trinket that he’d picked up a Harrods.
When I mentioned that I wrote about choosing a life full of meaning, hard work, and purpose, over the acquisition of material possessions, he quickly became engaged. He held his own champagne flute in one hand, but used it to point, emphasizing his words to the point of spillage.
His small sermon went something like this:
“Yes, filling that hole! You’re not going to fill that hole in your soul with buying another shiny object. Not for long, anyway.
“You can try to fill it up with external stimuli: the great food and luxuries, drugs and sex, that the world continuously offers up as the answers to that nagging ennui. (He spoke French fluently.)
“What’s more likely to happen is that, ironically, you start giving in order to fill that hole. You find work with purpose, build a life with meaning, and look outside yourself for the chance to be of service. I should have learned this early, but, there you are.
“Forget trying to be happy. I’ve had everything you could think you’d ever want. Now I’m back to the fundamentals. Am I happy? I never really think about it. I do my work because it fills that hole. I try to be considerate of my wife. I yell at my children because they tend to be lazy. I try not to drink as much as I once did. Now I’m trying to save the place.”
When I floated the hypothesis that people have a ‘water level’ of happiness that they will instinctively return to and maintain, regardless of how much good fortune or misery they experience, the Brit was circumspect.
“Only if they have the fundamentals,” he replied. “If they don’t, they’ll be more miserable than they normally would be. It’s exhausting chasing it.”
He abruptly cut the conversation short. His wife had spied a piece of art that struck her fancy and that, he confided, could be disastrous.
“You can have a houseful of beautiful pieces and nobody notices. One stinker and it brings the entire show down.”
And he was off, I think quite happily. He’d learned how to fill that hole.