You wake up to discover a knock at your door. A wealthy uncle you barely knew has passed and left you a fortune. It’s more than enough to live out your days in glorious splendor, but there is a condition. To be eligible to collect, you must commit your full-time working energies to the pursuit of an answer to a single question of your choosing for the next 12 months.
You are welcome to continue that pursuit after the year ends, for years or decades if it warrants, but you must remain fully focused on seeking the answer until the last minute of the 365th day. A minute shorter, the entire inheritance goes to your annoying and equally long lost cousin, Philly.
What is your question?
First: this is a fantastic question. I’m chock-full of questions 24/7, but if I had to choose just one, it would be this:
How can I best use my gifts to leave this planet better than I found it?
Here’s the thing, Uncle Moneypants. I’m filthy rich already.
Thank you. Really. This is an incredible offer, and I have to say in all honesty that I’m seriously tempted. It’s very generous. But Philly can have it. He probably wants it more than I do.
Because–and I don’t fault you for not knowing this, since we never really knew each other–I’m not for sale.
I know many of us are these days, whether out of avarice or extreme and heart-rending need. And I have to admit that things have been tight financially for my little family and me these past several years. My husband’s a teacher at an independent school (private school teachers make thousands less than public school teachers). I teach part-time. We’ve made a lot of financial sacrifices because
a) my husband is punch-drunk in love with his job. He loves his academic freedom, his kick-butt colleagues, and most of all his mind-blowingly amazing students.
b) we both believe strongly that for our family, caring for our children ourselves was the best of all possible worlds.
c) I am pursuing a career as a writer, because I can’t not write, because I would be deeply unhappy and a fraud if I pretended that a 9-5 would fulfill me. I would rather my children have a happy mother than a wealthy one. I would rather my husband have a happy wife than a miserable one. I would rather, most of all, be happy for myself.
d) both my husband and I gave up the promise of high-powered professional careers because we want our jobs to support our lives and not the other way around.
So I’m gratefully and respectfully declining your generous offer. I’ve made a commitment to my students–the brilliant, passionate college-bound seniors in my writing class and the make-me-want-to-tear-my-hair-out-but-I-love-them-anyway seventh graders in my introductory French class. I’m not going to ditch them for any amount of money.
The people I admire most have changed the world without money or privilege. Sure, money can do good things–great things–but I know, too, that we live in a culture that has come to value money above life, and I don’t want to participate in that delusion. I want to fight it. I want my kids to grow up believing that the power of the human heart is greater than the power of the Almighty Dollar.
And, I also have to admit, I’m something of a contrarian. I don’t want money that comes with strings attached, even if they’re golden strings. Sure, I could devote myself to pursuing this question and probably come up with a lot of good stuff, but I wouldn’t feel like me. I’ve already lost one year of my life to an anxiety disorder, most of a year to a traumatic car accident, a year to postpartum depression. I’m not giving away any more.
Besides, I don’t need money to pursue this question. I ask it of myself every single day. It’s not a 9-5 job–it’s my life. I live this question. To be paid for asking it–that seems superfluous.
I’d rather earn the money I need on my own terms. And I don’t need vast amounts–I just need enough.
Philly can have the money. It will probably do him good to live a year in his biggest question. On the last minute of the 365th day, I’m going to be too busy kissing my true love.