Relationships, You & Your Family

When time runs out for a machine-man

When time runs out for a machine-man

He sat scowling and with eyes intently fixed on me throughout the first part of our meeting. Even when correcting some of what his wife and son had said, he never once took his eyes off me. It made me feel a little uncomfortable.

I would have felt intimidated if I thought that this was his intent. However, I could see how this man of 70 years was himself feeling somewhat uncomfortable. He had been “persuaded” by their four adult children to attend couple counselling. He had promised to at least “give it a shot”. But as a self-made man with a large business empire, he was more used to barking out orders about making more money than engaging in a conversation about improving his social skills and marriage.

When he did speak, he did not mince his words. He directly addressed the cause of their marital conflicts over the last few years as a “misunderstanding”.  His wife had been concerned about his relationship with a number of his female assistants. He admitted to giving them his attention but stopped short of admitting anything deeper. He had even gone a step further to reassign all the women and now worked with male assistants only.

Then, he made an unexpected announcement about a very recent development. He disclosed a recent health diagnosis which indicated he might have only three to four years to live. Medical intervention could prolong the inevitability but would not add much more time. With this knowledge, he had decided on some radical refocusing of his remaining years.

For one, instead of expending all his time and effort in growing his business—at great expense to his health, he added—he now wanted to focus on doing what would make him happy. Before embarking on this, he wanted to use the next few months, whilst his declining health still allowed, to wind up several of his latest business ventures.

My client then described himself in a manner that stuck in my mind for some time. He likened himself to a machine that had been running at a fast and relentless pace since the tender age of 14. There was hardly any slowing down—not with National Service, marriage or building his business empire. His wife seemed to accept it as her lot in life for marrying a man bent on climbing out of poverty without a backward glance. He feared that if he suddenly stopped the furiously spinning wheels of this man-machine, other dire consequences would follow.

I have met a few men like him in counselling. Men with a singular drive to be successful, to make it big. Of course, for the few who make it, often with much toil and sacrifice, countless have not. Sadly, even after accumulating massive wealth, many are not happy.

Returning to my client: Will this turning point in his life lead to what he wants to achieve and will he be successful here too? I feel that the outcome depends on two big challenges for him.

Firstly, to make a radical shift from making money towards finding happiness means that he needs to know what makes him happy. Happiness also relates to the values he holds dear—not on transient things or experiences. Being happy is an internal experience unfamiliar to him as happiness was often seen as an indulgence and not a necessity in life. Being happy is about being and not about doing. It is not about rushing around nor about a striving.  Ecclesiastes 2:11 reminds us that chasing after wealth and success is ultimately futile, like chasing after the wind.

Secondly, being happy often involves significant others—not being happy alone but with others. This however means that we can only do so much and whether others appreciate it or are positively affected is outside our control. A few of my high- achieving clients hope that by leaving a strong financial legacy, their beneficiaries will be pleased. To make others happy involves taking the time to do what they want and to address what they need, not what we want them to have.

Will my client be successful in his latest endeavour? At least for now, he has perhaps three or four years to work on it. Many of us may not have as long or even be aware of how much time we have left. Death may come as a thief in the night and rob us of whatever opportunity that may still remain.

Benny Bong has over 40 years of experience as a therapist, counsellor and trainer. He also conducts regular talks and webinars. Benny has helmed the You & Your Family column for more than 16 years and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.