For nearly thirty years the stranger in the woods…
Took the same steps over and over, year after year, and left no trace—no footprints in the snow or the soil. Treaded carefully on rocks in the forest and took great pains to avoid leaving an impression.
Camouflaged all his belongings so that glints of sunlight or moonlight would not shine on his location and betray him.
Slept in a tent in the woods of Maine and never once lit a fire.
Only ventured out of his safety cocoon after dark.
Talked to no one except for the one time he said “hi” to a hiker whose path he inadvertently crossed.
Ate a lot of sweets and processed food. Never saw a dentist or a doctor.
Allowed his family to presume he was dead.
Had no idea what he looked like because he didn’t own a mirror.
Only had real relationships with the forest, chickadees, and a mushroom he watched grow larger from year to year (the mushroom gave him comfort).
“So, who is this character?” you might ask. He’s the subject of a recently published book, The Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel. He is also referred to as Maine’s “North Pond Hermit.” He’s a legendary figure who eluded law enforcement and a community while living in the woods for twenty-seven years. The authorities apprehended him in 2013 and he admitted to conducting 1000+ burglaries during his time away from society. He stole food, clothing and supplies. His name is Christopher Knight (no, not the same CK who played Peter on the Brady Bunch).
Christopher Knight had an ostensibly normal childhood. He grew up in a stoic, but loving family that highly valued its privacy. He did fine in school and never got in trouble. But he never felt comfortable in social situations. As a high school student he didn’t join any clubs, played no sports and never went to a social event. He didn’t see the point of talking to people and felt invisible. He was happiest when he was alone.
And so one day, he drove his less than one-year old Subaru to the side of a road near the edge of a forest. Armed with a tent and a backpack he stepped into the woods and disappeared.
The Stranger in the Woods details Mr. Knight’s meticulous behavior during the twenty seven years he lived off the grid. It also discusses the somewhat trivial events leading up to his disappearance, and his acclimation (if you can call it that) back into society. It’s a fascinating story that compels you to read it in one sitting. And as I read further and further, a strange thought came to me. It was quite bizarre, actually. I couldn’t stop myself from making an analogy between Christopher Knight and those of us focused on financial independence.
Am I a financial hermit? Are you?
There’s a difference between being a financial hermit and a financial rockstar. A financial rockstar uses his financial story to enhance his life. A rockstar is energized by his financial story. It motivates him to do great things. A financial hermit, on the other hand, uses his financial story to hold himself back. A hermit is weakened by his financial story. It consumes and inhibits him, and makes him dull.
So how do you know if you’re a financial hermit? For starters, ask yourself if you exhibit any of the following behaviors:
- Talking ad nauseam about your student loans
- Wearing the same clothes so frequently they’re starting to sprout
- Squeezing every penny out of a dollar
- Cooking freezer meals until your fingers fall off
- Keeping your house or apartment hot as hell in the summer and frigid as an iceberg in the winter
- Obsessing over your mortgage or rent
- Walking everywhere to steer clear of the gas pump
- Talking about Dave Ramsey so often you speak his name in your sleep
- Checking your net worth every day
- Refusing to see a doctor even when you’re extremely sick because you fear the bill
- Avoiding friends because you’re tired of explaining your frugal ways to them
- Declining all social invitations because you don’t want to spend any money
Or are you guilty of constantly crunching the numbers and asking yourself:
- How much did I earn?
- How much did I spend?
- Did I save enough money this month?
- What is my savings rate?
- Why didn’t I start my Roth IRA sooner?
- How am I going to quit my job in X years if I keep going at this rate?
If you answered yes to four or more of these questions, you might be a financial hermit.
Is there hope for you? There sure is. But you need to take action right now. You need to put your financial story on pause. Do something different. Go see a friend. Swing your child in the park. Dip your toes in the lake. Dance in your living room. Go find some big magic. Eat a big, sloppy ice cream cone. Be still.
Begin to recognize that your financial story is just that—a story. It doesn’t define you. It doesn’t control you. It’s not the most important thing in your life. And your financial story will go on. Your student loan will still be waiting for you tomorrow. So will the house payment. The Dow will rise and it will fall. The kids will outgrow their clothing. The washing machine will break down. Sounds like life.
Sounds like life to me it ain’t no fantasy
It’s just a common case of everyday reality
Man I know it’s tough but you gotta suck it up
To hear you talk you’re caught up in some tragedy
It sounds like life to me