This past weekend, I spent some time re-reading a large portion of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe, which you can read in its entirety here.
Most of us are familiar with the basic outline of the story. Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island and, after overcoming his initial grief, he manages to build a home for himself using only what he has on hand. Most of the story revolves around Crusoe’s solitary life on this island, as he starts over with virtually nothing.
During this journey, he begins to realize that the things he once valued really don’t have any value at all. He finds money in the shipwreck, but he quickly realizes that the money is worthless since it doesn’t help him solve his problems. He finds that he has very negative views of some of the natives on the island, but, again, he finds that those negative views do not help him survive on the island.
Instead, most of the book is about Crusoe constantly questioning what he needs and what he actually values. What does he need to survive? What does he need to find some basic pleasure in life? What’s left when you strip away all of the layers of society around us and look at just what you need as an individual?
Robinson Crusoe really struck a chord with me this time around because it echoes the journey I’ve been on over the past five years. It’s a journey that, on the surface, is a lot about personal finance, but it’s really all about rethinking what’s actually important to me.
What do I really need in life? What actually matters to me? What am I actually responsible for?
When I think about those questions, I start coming up with a lot of answers that would have been alien to me eight years ago.
I think, first and foremost, about human beings. I think about my children and my wife. I think about my parents and my in-laws and my closest friends. I think about the people who read my site and who write me heartfelt emails that I often feel completely inadequate responding to.
I think about securing the basics. I think about emergency funds and insurance. I think about my role as an educator for my children and my role as a skill-builder for myself.
I think about the truth of my own self-actualization. What things do I do that actually feel good? For me, reading and writing are right up there at the top of the list, as are mild exercise and a good meal and time spent with those human beings I care about.
So many of the things that media and society tell me I’m supposed to care about… I simply don’t care about. A car is merely a means to get from one place to another. An electronic device is nothing more than a way to communicate with someone I care about or to entertain myself in an often-unfulfilling way.
I also find myself thinking about my own obstacles. I’m deaf in one ear. I’m blind in one eye. I have a non-functional thyroid (since birth – my mother used to mash up my thyroid medication in my baby milk). I have a lot of personality flaws, too, particularly my tendency toward not being overly social when I ought to be.
Like Crusoe, my life is filled with basic things that are important to me and the realization that a lot of things that once seemed important really aren’t. Like Crusoe, I have a lot of obstacles in front of me, but I have a lot of tools for building what I need for the future.
We are all Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on an island. We all face hardships that we didn’t expect in life, and we’re all faced with things we probably feel are grotesquely unfair. At the same time, we all have a lot of tools to make the best of our situation.
It all comes down to whether or not we give into the grief and the desire to blame others, or whether we pick ourselves up and embark on a new journey in which we make the most of what we have and focus on what we actually need instead of what we want.
The strongest tool we have is our mind, which helps us evaluate our life and figure out what things are genuinely important to us – and which are not. The answer to that question – what’s important and what isn’t – is not something that someone else can tell us. It’s something we have to figure out for ourselves.
The choice is yours.