For the next 5 weeks, we will be traveling through Italy, from Rome, Naples, and Amalfi, to Tuscany, Como, and Venice. This is the first time any of us have been to Italy, and so far we’re loving it!
Most people we talk to about Italy have only positive things to say. They mention the impressive architecture, serene landscapes, tasty food, and lively people. Except for pickpockets and high prices, it sounds like there’s little to worry about.
However, I did find myself feeling anxious about the high prices. I ran some calculations, and am confident that we have enough money for this trip, even if we splurge. However, I knew from experience that seeing a $20 price tag for a plate of food would make my heart jump in comparison to the $2-6 I’ve become accustomed to paying. And I was worried that I’d have this sensation with each hotel, taxi ride, and purchase. I could hear myself complaining about how expensive everything is, comparing it to other places where I could get the same thing for less. I’d wonder if the experience is really worth that much, and I’d find it hard to enjoy the trip.
After all, it’s not what we do or buy that makes us ultimately happy, I believe, but who we are inside, regardless of our circumstances. Perhaps instead of going to Italy, the money would be better used by giving it to someone who’s starving or in dire need of help, rather than bathing myself in the relative luxury of exploring this place. Give me the “cheap” experience of life. I can be happy with that. And then I’ll have more money to put toward more “important” things.
I’ve had these types of thoughts for most of my life, even when I made next to nothing, and even though I’ve always put a portion of my money toward charitable causes, and savings. I don’t want to pay more for something when I can pay less. I don’t want to “waste” money, and would rather save it than spend it on something I don’t really need. I’m the same way with time. I tend to look for the most efficient way to do something, so that I have more time for other things. I do see frugality as an honorable and often necessary trait, but I’m also seeing some detriments when it’s taken to an extreme. Likewise, I can focus on efficiency so much that I become irritable and forget to appreciate what I’m being efficient doing.
Every Experience is Worth Enjoying
After sitting with these thoughts and feelings, I started to realize that every experience has value, regardless of monetary cost or the time it takes to do it. Is any experience truly better than another, or is it just different? For example, is a $30/night hotel in Vietnam any greater or lesser of an experience than a $300 apartment in Rome? What if the amounts were reversed and I paid $300 in Vietnam and $30 in Rome? Would the value or quality of the experience really change? Would the cost change what I can gain from the experience? Why should I rule out the more expensive option if I can afford it?
I think that every blissful spiritual experience, every physical or emotional pain, every moment of boredom or frustration has value and is different from every other moment. Each second is a second worth appreciating and enjoying fully, regardless of what is happening. But I’m limiting my enjoyment by making value judgments, comparisons, and attaching labels to the experience.
Jam and Pencils
The other day, my family was sitting around the breakfast table. I noticed one of my kids scooping the last bit of jam from the jar, and realized that I wouldn’t get much jam on my toast, if any. Part of me felt irritated, and I started thinking through who used the jam last and how we should have been more careful to save enough so we’d all have some. But then I stopped myself, and realized that this moment is also an experience. I don’t have to spend so much thought energy judging what should have happened or planning how to prevent it in the future. The fact is that we didn’t have enough jam for everyone that day. I can appreciate the experience of not having enough jam for my toast. I don’t have to change the situation. It’s what’s happening, and it’s okay. What is this experience like and how does it feel?
This doesn’t mean I’ll passively endure whatever happens to me. But I can accept that the present moment is for enjoying now. The time for thinking about buying jam is when I’m at the store.
Likewise, when we were at the airport in Shanghai, we passed a shop selling toys and supplies with pictures of pandas on them. They had a small package of colored pencils that Jen thought the kids would enjoy on the flight. But when I saw the $8 price tag, my thoughts kicked in. I remembered that I’ve paid 50 cents for this many colored pencils elsewhere, and probably better quality. We already have pencils at home anyway, the kids just didn’t bring them on this trip. I couldn’t justify paying that much for pencils, even though I knew I could afford it.
But after some pondering, I concluded that with a 12 hour flight ahead of us, and no other option for pencils in the vicinity, $8 didn’t seem all that much for helping the kids stay entertained and creative, and for helping my wife feel respected. The value of the pencils isn’t in the price tag. It’s in the experiences we will have using them during the flight and afterward.
Would I have paid $80 for these pencils? Probably not. But would it have been wasteful to pay $80 for them, if I could afford that? I’m not so sure. I think the value is in how I live the experience. The money is just changing hands. As long as I’m happy with the hands it’s going into, and it’s an experience I want to have, and it’s not going to break the bank, why worry so much about the price? That can stain the experience.
Letting the Mind Rest
I’ve recently started to practice using my computer and phone as I want to use my mind. I only turn on my computer when I have a specific task to perform, and then I put it away. No more mindlessly checking email throughout the day, or getting sucked into Facebook or todo lists, unless that’s the task I want to do in that moment. Likewise, unless there is a specific task I need for my brain, I’m trying to let it rest so I can be present in the moment instead of caught up in my thoughts about the moment, which are usually focused on the past or the future and taking away from my enjoyment of whatever I’m experiencing.
So, next time I pass a menu at an Italian restaurant, and I see high prices, I can remember that regardless of the cost, regardless of how delicious (or not) the food is, this restaurant will be an experience, and can be appreciated for what it is. Maybe I will taste something inspiring or meet someone who will change my life in a profound way. Or maybe it will taste awful and I will get food poisoning. I don’t know what the next moment will bring, but if I’m enjoying every second of it, does it really matter?