I was recently walking with a friend through her neighbourhood. We were passing by this beautiful Victorian-style heritage home that both of us have admired and envied for some time.
Over the past few years, it has been extensively and meticulously restored from a state of more-or-less neglect to a state of eye-catching beauty. It has a cross-gabled roof, immaculate cornice work, bay windows with intricate decorative trim, raised flower beds filled with pansies and primulas, and a beautiful rich-red tile pathway leading up to its door.
I was commenting, yet again, on how wonderful it must be to live in that home, when we spotted the owner standing outside planting some bulbs in one of the raised flowerbeds. My friend and I complimented him on his house and expressed our admiration for all of the work he’d put into it. He thanked us, but told us that for the longest time he had considered the place to be somewhat of an “albatross.” Apparently, he and his wife had bought it seven years ago for a price that was considerably below the going market value. It was in need of extensive repairs, but being an engineer and a one-time carpenter, and having a wife who is an architect, he felt sure that it was a project they could readily handle. Besides, their children had all left the nest, and they had a lot of free time on their hands.
As it turned out, despite their professional training, they had grossly underestimated the sheer amount of work that needed to be done to the place. Just about everything, except the structure itself, had to be completely reconstructed. With all of the time and money that was absorbed in the reconstruction job, they hadn’t had a vacation in the past seven years.
Practically every weekend and holiday over that period had been spent working from morning until night, hammering, sawing, lifting, climbing, pulling and (worst of all) haggling with delinquent and/or over-worked contractors. “If we had known then what I know now,” he said, “We’d never have bought this place.” Then, with the faintest hint of a smile, he added “that’s why it’s a good thing we never know how much trouble is in store for us. Otherwise, we’d never do anything.”
I think he is right about that. It is very easy to be apprehensive about the future. We agonize about major life decisions, especially ones that entail significant risk or the prospect of turmoil in our lives. Should I take a chance, quit my job and go back to school? This new job is very exciting, but will I be able to handle the challenges that it presents? And in truth, if we knew just how much toil and effort, anxiety and sleeplessness would result from taking these chances, we would probably just back off and learn to settle for stasis in our lives. But then, we would be missing out on so many unexpected rewards. And, after all, we wouldn’t be totally living, would we?
I guess free will, and the ignorance that allows us to use it, are essential to a life well lived.