Of Grasshoppers and Ants: When Winter Comes

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It is an age-old dilemma and an age-old story. Spend or save? Play or work?

Aesop told it in the tale of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper sings the summer away while the ant works to store food for the cold months. When winter comes, the grasshopper is out of luck.

There are numerous different versions of this story, but I’ve always wondered about one particular, very human variation. What happens when two people, close friends or lovers, both are engaged in a life style that only one can afford?

The woman, a high-powered executive with a salary to match, can afford to live the way she does; expensive meals, nice trips, Broadway musicals and the like. The man has the same tastes as his lady friend and enjoys indulging them no less, but isn’t a big-time earner. His is a “live for today” attitude, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

Finally, though, the man has a reversal of fortune; perhaps he loses his job. Or, let’s say that he must retire. Both remain healthy and active, but the small amount of savings in the man’s account are mostly gone, spent on all those dinners and trips,  the wine and the laughter that accompanied the good times. The woman still wants to live in the same old way: not counting the pennies. The male is largely dependent on his severance and unemployment benefits in one scenario; or his modest Social Security and retirement checks, if he is a bit older.

What happens now?

A few different possibilities:

1. The woman adjusts her life style and learns to live in a new way, still spending the same amount of free time with the man; the man, too, realizes he cannot live as before and finds less expensive ways of having a good time. Travel is severely curtailed. Lavish restaurant meals are now just memories. They accept the new financial terms dictated by his financial status and still enjoy the relationship.

1a. Both parties try to live with less expense, but it doesn’t work for them. The man believes that the woman could support some approximation of the previous level of entertainment and luxury if only she wished to. The woman regrets the need to set aside “fun,” even if it is in an effort to maintain the relationship. Each one feels the strain.

2. The woman decides that she still wants to live in the old way and is willing to pay for her friend to accompany her. Some amount of “hostile dependency” is inevitable, with the man feeling resentment that he has lost “standing” in the relationship. Meanwhile, the woman matches his resentment with a sense that her lover is not sufficiently grateful for her generosity.

3. In the final scenario the woman decides she wants to live as before, but she doesn’t intend to pay for her friend’s expenses all the time. So she leaves him behind with some frequency, going to expensive dinners with female friends, going on trips alone or with others who can pay their own way. She does not want to mortgage her economic future to indulge her friend.

Of course, this path risks its own tensions. The man is angry at being left behind and the financial strain of trying to keep up with his companion to the extent that he can. The woman resents his resentment, because she is paying for more than before, even if not for everything.

The lovers are spending less time together now and therefore might have more opportunity to meet someone else of the opposite sex with whom these difficulties would not be present. Temptation exists where none existed before.

Now, I imagine that you might have one of several responses. “Too bad,” would probably be one, a shame that they have had this reversal in fortune that has changed the relationship.

On the other hand, some of you might blame him for being the “grasshopper,” not saving for the winter. Others could find the woman to be selfish and self-involved if she chooses either the second or the third “solution;” not willing to be more generous toward the man whom she says that she loves.

In my experience, it would be relatively rare for two people used to a certain, somewhat extravagant way of living to adjust to a more modest life style, when such an adjustment is a necessity for only one of them. Indeed, in the present example, one can fairly assume that shared interests in elegant dining, good seats at sporting events, and travel were among the elements that attracted one to the other and bound them together.

In the end, we outsiders often think that the proper solutions to — let’s face it — non-life-threatening problems such as these are obvious and should be easy to enact.

But when you are in the middle of the thing itself, it often isn’t as easy as it looks from the grandstand.

If only this couple could realize their good fortune in having each other, friends and family, and their good health (Solution #1), as well as the relative unimportance of living in a grand fashion…

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There is a famous 1819 painting by Francisco de Goya, La Riña. It shows two men attempting to beat each other, stuck in muck and mire. Nothing too remarkable in that.

But what is stunning about the composition is how it contrasts the brutality of the antagonists with the staggering beauty of the landscape they inhabit. Just as in the case of the hypothetical man and woman I’ve described, who (unless they can comfortably arrive at the first solution) will live in some unnecessary measure of tension and unhappiness, these men too do not see the beauty around them, or do not value it highly enough.

And so the consolation of what the lovers still have together — those things about their relationship that are free of any cost — are dismissed, just as the beauty and wonder of nature are ignored by these men, sacrificed to their resentments.

Sound familiar?

The first above image is The Ant and the Grasshopper, from Aesop’s Fables, a 1919 illustration by Milo Winter from Project Gutenberg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second is the Goya painting I described, which resides in the Prado, with the same source.

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”