I was raised with very clear instructions on how to live a skillful life. Throughout my childhood my loving parents and a host of other grown-ups offered their brand of wisdom on what a successful living looked like. I guess they considered it their responsibility to mold me into an upright human being: my teachers, charged with making me smart enough to be a productive citizen, aunts and uncles who always figured they knew better than my parents about what I needed to learn, and many others.
It’s funny how their messages hardly ever synched up. My teachers would contradict my aunts and uncles, who in turn contradicted my parents.
But there was a particular agreement that stood out as the one harmonic note in their otherwise dissonant symphony of unsolicited advice: People will try to get away with what they can. It was meant to convince me to be on the lookout, as people will try to screw me over if they believe they can get away with it, especially when it involves matters around money.
Much of the advice I was given back then was delivered in fear generating, staccato sentences, like a firing machine gun. Their ideas engrained in my childhood mind the notion that everyone was only looking out for themselves. I grew up believing that the moment I turned my back was the moment I got the metaphorical (or sometimes literal) knife in the back. It was a frightful lens to view the world through.
I never questioned those authority figures until the day I happened upon a teacher filled with a deeper wisdom.
One hot and dusty Saturday I was roaming the aisles of a flea market outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I came upon a small booth displaying all manner of paraphernalia from the Old West. There was an aged cowboy sitting under a stretched tarp, trying to keep cool in the meager shade. He was tall, lean and windswept, like a weathered fence post. A ragged Stetson shadowed his watchful eyes.
He was surrounded by ripened saddles, rust spotted branding irons, faded denim vests and handcrafted holsters for six-shooters. But what tickled my fancy were the numerous pairs of worn cowboy boots under one of his tables. And after trying a few on I found a nice dark leather pair that fit pretty good. “What d’ you get on the boots?” I asked the cowboy.
“Got to get thirty-five on those,” he said with an easy, business-like air.
For Santa Fe prices, thirty-five on a quality used pair of cowboy boots was pretty good. I paid the trader, not even bothering to haggle, happy with my purchase. I was probably close to fifty yards down the aisle when I heard some quick feet coming up from behind. “Excuse me.” It was the cowboy. “I gave you the wrong price. I mistook that pair for another I have,” he said.
The old scripts from my childhood authority figures kicked in. He was trying to get an extra few bucks out of me. “That pair goes for twenty-five, my apologies.” He thrust a ten-dollar bill into my hand, tipped his hat and returned to his space. I was stunned for a moment. “Uhh, thanks—I appreciate it,” I called after him.
I made a habit of visiting that cowboy every time I went back to the flea market and we developed a sort of friendship. One day I asked him about that return of ten dollars that would have been so easy to just keep. After all, I had been more than satisfied with the original price.
“We’re born to honesty like we’re born to breathing,” he told me. “It takes a lot of work to be purposefully dishonest because it goes against the grain of how the Creator made us. You want to have peace of mind, wellbeing? Then you need to figure out how to harmonize with that naturalness the Creator instilled within us. We’re just naturally honest, plain and simple.”
“Seems pretty easy to be dishonest,” I replied. “Just look at how many people take advantage of others.”
“Look at how much suffering there is in the world,” the cowboy pointed out. “You want to create suffering for yourself, then be dishonest. You want to live a peaceful life, free of needless suffering? Then be how you were intended by the Creator. Be honest with others and, more importantly, be honest with yourself.”
And just like that, in a flea market trader’s booth, with the smell of old leather and sagebrush riding the air, I was given the greatest secret to living a peaceful life. Years of mental conditioning from the authority figures blew away like tumble weeds in a springtime breeze. Good old cowboy wisdom!