Thursday, June 10, 2010

Questions and Answers - and Montaigne

A while ago, I was going through a period where I questioned my choices. I wondered if I should have stayed for a second year in Dubai (it would have meant more money in my bank account -- always a good thing). I wondered if I made the right choice coming back to try to "do right" by my mother. Most important of all: did I make the right choice quitting my job?

I was fretting a lot about this career uncertainty these past few months, even falling into quicksand-like moments of depression -- those mental traps that you slip into suddenly, unexpectedly -- and consumes you completely. Yet I am observing my own state of mind here and now -- and I feel fine. A little ironic perhaps, a little introspective -- but capable of a smile.

Amazing how the situation remains the same, yet our mind has such a wide spectrum of reactions.

After all the questions, there are a few things I can be sure of: Some of my friends have remarked how much better I look these days. I no longer wake up with that sense of heavy weariness that comes with waking up to a work-day. I felt stuck at my previous job. The point was getting unstuck.

So where do I go from here? Interestingly enough, I thought Montaigne might have the right idea.

Like many noblemen of his times, Michel de Montaigne had two jobs. He held a magistracy in Bordeaux for thirteen years, and he was responsible for the prosperous country estate he inherited from his father in 1568. Then in 1570, he retired as magistrate. He was thirty-seven, hardly an old man. He decided to give up his political life and retreat to a more meaningful life of introspection, reading and writing. Just like that.

Montaigne went to some length for his retreat. He converted one of the towers at his chateau into his office, and there -- set up his library with its collection of over a thousand volumes. On his 38th birthday, just because he felt like it, he had a Latin inscription painted on the wall of a side-chamber to his library. It read:

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins [the Muses], where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.

Montaigne took the advice of the ancients to heart, especially that of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who advised his fellow Romans to retreat from the world to better find themselves. So Montaigne retreated, and he turned his attention to observing, questioning and writing about his own experiences. He soon began working on the Essays that would seal his name in the history of literature.

I am not making claims to deathless prose. Yet, shifting one's focus to a more meditative life feels right -- more rewarding. It is still important to find gainful employment of course. One needs to live, to pay the bills -- just as Montaigne maintained his estate after he resigned from public office. But life has to be more than just politics, money, career and fame. We need to retreat -- to spend real time working inwards for something richer.

So, I have decided: I am retired. My job will support me, but is not the focus of my real life.

[Still reading Sarah Bakewell's How to Live.]


Courtney said...

excellent post, and I've been mulling over some similar thoughts lately. I like the work I do but I really struggle with the idea of climbing up the corporate ladder and dealing with all of the nasty politics - I am not opposed to working - it is a necessary and even noble thing - but for me I think that is as far as it goes - the rest of my life is the true focus.

Unknown said...

Haha, i half wish i could say the same about being so introspective. I may not be terribly thrilled about the work i do, but i don't detest it either, and the love (and need) for the remuneration does make things sweeter. For me, it's like this. I like money so i work for it. If i don't work, yes i will be happier because i am not stuck to the 9am - 6.30pm routine, but i will not appreciate the lack of funds.

What is the focus of my life? Money. Because i need it to pay the bills, feed the kid, indulge myself. Money is a necessary evil.

Stefanie said...

Work to live not live to work, that's my philosophy. It is good to find work you enjoy, but work is not life. Yay for Montaigne!