It Costs What It Costs
When I first moved to New York, I had dinner with a friend who had lived there a long time. The thing about the city, he told me, is that everything is so expensive, it’s almost freeing. His apartment rented for half of what I would later buy an entire farm for. He was in the middle of planning a wedding in the city, too. In any sane environment, he said, you’d look for a deal; you’d refuse to be gouged or charged exorbitant prices for ordinary things.
But in New York? You just have to accept it.
It costs what it costs. That’s it.
Now, I personally came to believe that almost none of the advantages offered by the city were worth the price—and still don’t, which is why I moved—but this lesson has stuck with me. Because it transcends both geography and finances.
Reality is indifferent to our preferences. There is no such thing as a fair price. Stuff—life—costs what it costs. You either pay it or you don’t.
The Stoics had a beautiful phrase for this. They called it the art of acquiescence.
It would be better if I never had to run into traffic on the way to my office. It would be better if a good chunk of our fellow humans hadn’t hardened their hearts to suffering. It’d be better if I didn’t have to tell my kids that they can’t go to school or see their friends right now. It’d be better if ordinary prices were always attached to ordinary things.
But that’s not how it goes. So if I want to keep living here, in Austin, on Planet Earth, I’ve got to accept it. I have to pay it.
That’s an idea I’ve loved from Seneca. He points out that taxes are not just levied on income. They are just the financial form. There are many forms of taxes in life. You can argue with them, you can go to great—but ultimately futile—lengths to evade them, or you can simply pay them and enjoy the fruits of what you get to keep.
“Nothing will ever befall me that I will receive with gloom or a bad disposition,” he writes. “I will pay my taxes gladly. Now, all the things which cause complaint or dread are like the taxes of life—things from which, my dear Lucilius, you should never hope for exemption or seek escape.”
I’ve posted this quote on Instagram on April 15th the last few years and it’s been hilarious to see how angry some get. As if people haven’t been complaining about their taxes for thousands of years! And by the way, where are those people from so long ago? Dead.
Everything we do has a toll attached to it. Waiting around is a tax on traveling. Rumors and gossip are the taxes that come from acquiring a public persona. Disagreements and occasional frustration are taxes placed on even the happiest of relationships. Theft is a tax on abundance and having things that other people want. Stress and problems are tariffs that come attached to success.
And on and on and on.
This can make you angry, or you can come to terms with it.
Especially since, like with income, taxes are a good problem to have. Far better than, say, making so little there is nothing left to pay the government or living in anarchy and having to pay for every basic service in a struggle against nature. Remember: There is a certain way to get out of paying taxes—literal or figurative… it’s called death (and actually, because of the estate tax, that’s not true either).
When the broadcaster Stuart Scott found out he had cancer, possibly fatal cancer, he had this reaction. It wasn’t resignation, it was responsibility. He was an adult about it, a real man—or perhaps almost more than the kind of man that most of us are capable of being. In any case, he was not like these children who get upset the first time something doesn’t go their way.
When a friend asked if he ever thought, “Why me?” he said, “I have two girls that I love. I have a wonderful job that I love getting up for every day. Why not me? I’m about due.” When another friend said they wished they could take some of his cancer and suffer instead of him, he said, “I wouldn’t let you do it. I got it.”
When you meet someone who has true zen about them, you can bet they are operating on that level.
They are calm because they have learned what they have to accept. They are happy because they’ve stopped fighting battles they were never going to win. They are grateful for what they get to keep, not what was taken or what they’ve had to put up with.
Now more than ever we need this attitude, as difficult as it is.
A pandemic is a pandemic. Does it cost wearing a mask? OK. Does it cost traveling less? OK. Does it cost enduring fools and jerks who can’t understand these things? OK, I’ll come to terms with that too.
Because what am I going to do? Wear myself down fighting something that can’t be fought? Become crazy myself? Fall prey to magical thinking or conspiracy theories?
No. Like Seneca, I’ll pay my taxes gladly.
So should you.
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