Ending my 40s...
FIRE, dark grace, and our only spiritual task is to accept it all in with gratitude.
Today is the last day of my 40s. I turn 50 on Saturday.
It all started nine years ago today, on November 11, 2013, when I got laid off from my job at the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. I remember an eerie sense of kairos: of time outside of chronology, of life on the edge, untethered to life before, with the future unknown ahead.
I had been laid off before (actually fired) when I was 28. Painful. That was the first great transformative shift in my life. It’s a story I could tell another time, but because of the firing, I shifted from the achievement, status, and recognition of being a San Francisco tech lawyer to the humility and joy of being a Pennsylvania Quaker boarding school teacher. So I knew with this layoff, at age 41, something big could happen again.
Then my Uncle, who raised me since I was 6, died of ALS. One of the last things he told me was:
“I have one piece of advice for you: don’t wait for anything. I waited my entire life to do things, and now I can’t.”
I knew what he meant. We come from a family of prominent Chinese Nationalists who had to flee or be killed when the Communists took over. Lost everything but what they could carry. My Uncle was born outside China and wanted to go see his homeland, but he never did. He had always wanted to take my Aunt to Europe, but he never did. He was waiting for retirement to do both. He died at age 64.
A few months later, I attended a workshop with Mr Money Mustache and the Money Boss about working for financial independence, retiring early (FIRE), and realized that I had already done it.1 I had earned $36k/year and lived on $25k/year, invested the difference2 and after 20 years, at age 42, had enough money to retire.
Life on FIRE
Novelists and screenwriters talk about “inciting incident,” the event near to the beginning of the story, which redirects the protagonist’s course of action.
My inciting incident was Uncle’s dying admonition: Don’t wait for anything. Once I had realized that I had FIRE, I had the responsibility of a blank canvas.3 I had no choice except to live more truthfully, creatively and consciously. The excuses are gone. As Vicki Robin once told me, when you no longer have to work "to make a living" (which is a pretty Orwellian term), you can eliminate all the bullshit of your life. Your life’s work can become more YOU.
My life has gone in directions I would have never thought ten years ago. Or more accurately, I never imagined. My favorite finance writer Morgan Housel said, "I think we’re actually very good at predicting the future – except for the surprises, which tend to be all that matter. In most years the biggest economic risk turns out to be something nobody could have seen coming at the beginning of that year. 9/11, or Covid, or Lehman Brothers’ failure to find a buyer, or Russia invading Ukraine – the biggest risk is always what you don’t and can’t see coming.” But it works on the opposite way too. The biggest opportunities are what you don’t and can’t see coming too. At age 40, I literally could have never imagined the stuff I've done in the last ten years because of FIRE.4
On a deeper level, FIRE has taught me about the conditions I've put on life in order to be happy:
I’ll be happy if the Democrats win.
I’ll be happy if PUGS sells for a good price.
I'll be happy if my investments go up.
I’ll be happy if I found a partner and wasn’t so lonely.
I'll be happy if we can prevent climate change.
I'll be happy if we get social justice.
I’ve learned to let go of I'll be happy if. The demands I’ve put on life. The world is not here to serve me.5 Werner Erhard once said happiness is a function of accepting this is it and all our suffering is this isn’t it. And the more I understand that notion, the more spaciousness I have in my life.
I still want things, including the list above. But as the Buddhists say, "not too tight and not too loose." Like, I still prefer the Democrats over the Republicans. But my personal liberation does not depend on it. As the Reverend angel Kyodo Williams says:
It's all important to be free independent of political or economic equality. To be liberated not defined by causes and conditions. It's more essential to do that than I can say. If we wait for the land back or the power back, we will never be free. Instead of staying in the hand that binds, go to the place that the hand has never known. It's a spiritual power, that communicates into the material world.
I am freer than the causes and conditions that contain me. It's one thing to say and another thing to know it to be true. If we are only real and true based on the causes and conditions, we can not be free.
When you let go of this isn’t it, and truly surrender to life, the expectations go away.
I would love to live like a river flows,
carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.
Unfinished Poem, by John O’Donohue
According to scientists, awe is the experience of self-transcendence. Awe is letting go, loving the world, and feeling wondrous of everything in front of you.
Awe is the root practice. Awe is available every moment.
My friend Patricia Madson taught improv at Stanford University. In her book Improv Wisdom, she writes:
Saying yes is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control. It is a way to make your partner happy. Yes expands your world.
Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin—blocking. Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. The critic in us wakes up and runs the show. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future.
With the liberation of not having to work, I simply don’t know what life will bring. I just want to say yes to it. Financial independence allows you to have a deeper bag of yeses to life. I can only welcome whenever may come, say yes to it, what Nietzche called amor fati, the love of one’s one fate.
I might one day write a full post to this, but I’ve come to believe in “dark grace.” In my Franciscan theological training, I learned that God’s grace is all around us. We are drenched in it. But I believe that if God is another name for everything, God’s grace is much more complex and paradoxical than we want it to be. Grace isn't just puppy dogs, yummy Asian food, and love from family and friends. Grace is also all the things we don't want and try to push away: the death of a parent, the unmet desire for a partner, the getting fired from a job.
Our only spiritual task is to accept it all, breathe it in, receive it all in gratitude.
I broke my heel and tore my Achilles this year. I had surgery to remove a bone spur on my foot and add a cadaver’s Achilles to mine. For a year, I’ll be in physical therapy to relearn how to walk and eventually play soccer again. A lot of pain there.
But as soon as I heard that pop in my foot and collapsed, I knew it was dark grace. The only task was to receive it in gratitude.
As I mentioned before, when I was 6, I was sent to live with my Aunt and Uncle. My mom and dad had divorced and neither could take care of me. I don’t have any memories of growing up with my mom. A lot of pain there. They call it a mother wound.
When I broke my heel and tore my Achilles, I couldn’t take care of myself. For the first month, I couldn’t even carry a plate of food or a glass of water from the kitchen to the dining room. My mom flew out from Toronto to Portland to take care of me. She grocery-shopped, cooked, did the laundry, cleaned the house for me when I couldn’t do any of those things for myself. For a month, she mothered me in a way that I never felt before. She held my hand in my worst moments of pain. Healing for me. Healing for her.
For the last nine years, playing soccer at noon was the center point of my daily life. A big part of my identity. I never would have wished to break my heel and tear my Achilles. Since June 1, I haven’t seen the soccer field, or even exercised. But it was dark grace. I was going to receive it. Let it in. Without dark grace, my mother would have never come to take care of me; I would never have thought to ask her. Before the Achilles tear, I could “take care of myself.” Dark grace forced me to surrender my independence, acknowledge my hurt, and let my mother in.
I’ve spent many years learning how to fix life, only to discover at the end of the day that life is not broken.
There is a hidden seed of greater wholeness in everyone and everything. We serve life best when we water it and befriend it. When we listen before we act.
In befriending life, we do not make things happen according to our own design.
We uncover something that is already happening in us and around us and create conditions that enable it.
Everything is moving toward its place of wholeness always struggling against odds.
Everything has a deep dream of itself and its fulfillment. - Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen
So here this week, my last day of my 40s, I have one piece of insight to tell you. It’s all grace. Life is like a meditation: breathe it in, hold it, let go. No matter what: a firing, the death of a parent, the unexpected breakup, the major illness or injury. And when I did I found what Albert Camus found:
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
I’m turning 50 tomorrow. I don’t know what the next decade will bring, but I know that, me, my 49 year-old self cannot imagine it. And that is a wondrous freedom. FIRE gave me my financial liberation, but the real liberation has been surrendering to the call and letting go. Giving a grateful yes to everything given, including, especially, the things I did not want. It is only then have I understood the wonder of wings, the miracle of flight.
Don’t wait for anything. This is it.
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Postscript: 50th birthday request!
As many of you know, I built The Appreciation Effect with my friend Drew. It’s a way of giving gratitude and enoughness in the world. Would you write me a message for my 50th birthday? The idea is that you write a Note of Appreciation, my platform will send one Note of Appreciation a day to me. That way, I'll pay more attention to each Note and I'll feel the love over a longer period of time. Use this Campaign link to write your Note. You don't have to be eloquent, aim for heartfelt and it will be beautiful. To learn more, here are some FAQs: https://theappreciationeffect.com/appreciation-campaigns.
Drew and I want you to start create an appreciation campaign for someone else too. The goal is to multiply joy, meaning, connection in a world that needs it. Use it for someone important in your life. And like this newsletter, it's FREE. And unlike this newsletter, it only takes a minute to start.
One of the first lessons in Financial Freedom 1 is a presentation from MMM, who most of my students find entitled and annoying. And I leave it in, because he’s the one who introduced me to the concept of FIRE. So I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Crazy fact: if you look at my Social Security earnings, I made more than $40k only eight years in my life, more than $75k only twice.
Deeper: I realize that my Uncle’s death also freed me to live more freely and creatively, without the weight of parental judgment.
Which reminds me of Richard Rohr’s Five Promises of Male Initiation, aka the facts of life:
Life is hard.
You are not that important.
Your life is not about you.
You are not in control.
You are going to die.