As most of you know, I’ve been a firefighter for more than 20 years. And, for a big chunk of those years, I did what many firefighters do: worked a second job. For a young person just starting their career, part-time work is almost essential. If you have a family and want anything above a menial existence, it is essential. While the starting salary of a firefighter in Raleigh is a little less than $40,000 annually, you’re living in an area with one of the highest costs of living in the southeast. That may sound like a lot, but after taxes, insurance and all the other little things that eat away at a paycheck, that $40k doesn’t go all that far. But, even after we start making more money, most of us don’t scale back our part-time work. Maybe that’s because we’ve got our own business established and don’t want see all that hard work go down the drain. For some, it’s because we want our children to have more than we did when we were kids. Or, maybe it’s because we’ve gotten used to all the little luxuries that part-time work provides. I think a big piece of the puzzle is our acceptance of society’s definition of success as “more”. More money, more stuff, more prestige. The message is you’re not successful unless you live in a house that’s at least 3000 sq ft, with a car for every family member old enough to drive and all the toys required for leisure in America. And, it’s coming in loud and clear.
Many a morning at the fire station, as my crew is about to go home, the conversation turns to what we’re going to do with our time off. At some point, some one will turn to me and say “You aren’t doing anything, are you?”, with a (un)veiled accusation that there’s something wrong with that. For many firefighters, not working part-time denotes laziness and, in an organization where safety is contingent on everyone pulling their weight, laziness is not tolerated. But, no one bothers to ask why I don’t work part-time. The simple answer is I don’t need to. Several years ago, I got off the merry-go-round and restructured my life so that my fire department salary would cover my expenses. I live in a nice, clean, modest home; I drive a used, mid-sized pick-up and I don’t have a boat, a motorcycle or a bunch of other toys. And, you know what? I don’t miss them. The main reason I did this was for my children. I don’t remember who said it or where I heard it, but someone said that kids don’t remember the stuff you gave them, they remember the time you spent with them. That was an eye-opener for me. Now, I will admit I was helped along in the decision to quit working part-time when my part-time employer told me my services were no longer required. At first, I was pissed; then, I read this from Matthew 6:25-34:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Which put things into perspective. Sure, there have been times I wish had more money, but I’ve been able to watch my daughters grow into amazing young women and I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world.
Think about this for a second: what if success meant that we raised children that understood life wasn’t all about them, it was about everyone around them? What if success meant that when people spoke of us, what was mentioned wasn’t how much stuff we had, but how many people were better off because of something we did? What if success meant that, instead of being a “ninja assassin in the rat race”, we were a “happy dork in the periwinkle”?