It is only when we are constantly struggling with all those mixed feelings of inadequacy, that we never really enjoy the present moment of our lives.
It took my wife and me forever to decide to buy a house back in Colombo, since we came to live and work, here, in Saudi Arabia in 1979. Actually, I should say that it took me forever to decide to buy a house; my wife had come to the conclusion that it was the best thing to do, based on what every other expat family in the Middle east were also doing, long before I did. I know that buying a house is a huge decision, but we weren’t stuck on which house to buy; we were stuck on whether or not we wanted to buy one at all.
My father had a large 65 perch bungalow at Bambalapitiya, of which I was one of the 2 inheritors according to his will. I had already built a smaller house on the same premises at the rear end which we occupied for sometime after we married in 1974. My wife had a house she inherited from her mother in Wellawatte. My Mum had a whole block of land on Barber Street in Kotahena, comprising a "watta" of several tenements and businesses which she had already gifted to my sister, from which income she survived, being a single mother. So the mental need to go out and buy a real house, for me, was never a priority or a necessity at all.
In any case, this really should not have been bothering me at all. All of our family were born and raised in Colombo, and have always had relatively steady and stable jobs, homes, cars, and a decent means of living, so buying property didnt really hit me as something I should be doing to have as a home or even as a nest egg for the future.
So what was holding me back? Honestly, I wanted to do something more interesting with my life than develop software and manage computer systems, live in a cookie-cutter house in the middle of the city while raising kids and pets and growing old with my wife. All of my friends were in the midst of doing really awesome things like migrating to the western world to follow love, a peaceful home, or even a perfect job, or they were writing books, doing research, or getting second master's degrees or PhD’s. I was just settling down in the Middle East with my wife and two young girls, on an interesting yet regular job with Citibank Technology, and it didn’t somehow feel like that was really enough. Was I on the right path then?
The funny thing is, though, that a lot of my friends who are doing the things I perceive as awesome are wishing that they were living the life that I was living, then. My friends who were PhD candidates were wishing they could finish so they’d be able to get a job in the Middle East and have enough money to buy a house. My friends who were writing books were wishing they had more free time. My friends who were planning migrations were wishing that the saga was finalized so they could stop feeling like they were in limbo all of the time.
I guess the grass, really, is always greener.
This feeling of inadequacy—maybe even envy of each other—that my friends and I were feeling seems to be an epidemic among most people in their late early 30s. It seems that, no matter what we do, we feel like we should be doing something else. Nothing we do is ever good enough, no matter how fantastic other people think it is. Being at peace with our choices is next to impossible, especially when we see other who we think and believe are so happy doing something else that we’ve had on our own bucket lists for a long time.
We also seem to always be looking forward to the next thing rather than being happy with where we are. Part of that is society’s fault. When we, finally, bought our own first house in Colombo, people immediately started asking us what we were going to do with it since we were not living permanently there yet. When people have a baby or write a book, we ask them when the next will be along. When students get close to finishing their degrees, we ask them what they plan to do after school. And so on. We can never just decide we’ve done enough because people won’t let us.
To this end, Gloria Steinem wrote, “I’ve always had two tracks running in my head. The pleasurable one was thinking forward to some future scene, imagining what should be, planning on the edge of fantasy. The other played underneath with all too realistic fragments of what I should have done. There it was in perfect microcosm, the past and future coming together to squeeze out the present, which is the only time in which we can be fully alive…These past and future tracks have gradually dimmed until they are rarely heard. More and more, there is only the full, glorious, alive-in-the-moment, don’t-give-a-damn yet caring-for-everything sense of the right now.”
People spend so much time “squeezing out the present” with hopes and dreams for the future or regrets about choices made in the past that it makes it difficult to just enjoy what is for as long as it is and then move on to the next thing, whatever that may be.
Personally, as soon as my wife and I moved everything we owned and possessed back home in Colombo, into the new house that we had bought ourselves, I did feel an immediate sense of calm as well as achievement. There is a permanence that goes along with property ownership that doesn’t come from much else in life. Especially when you've done it with your own hard earned cash. Once we bought the house, it felt like a million other tiny decisions had been made for us. Sure, I did think that I’ll get a PhD or write a book at some future point in time, even now, at this late stage of my life, but I’m in no rush. The path my life was taking then would have been different had we not moved out of Sri Lanka or had I started another educational adventure in Sri Lanka, but instead of feeling regret for what could have been, I’m actually feeling relieved.
Finally, I am happy with the way my life has rolled on to date, and I’m really comfortable that it will allow me to enjoy the present while letting the future come at its own pace. I just hope my friends can find this same peace, too.