On “Nothing is Free” and “The Best Things in Life are Free”

In English, we seem to have two contradictory idiomatic expressions that point to different facets of human experience, namely, “nothing is free” and “the best things in life are free.”  Which is true?  How can we find out?

I think the only way we can make sense of these expressions in terms of their actual applications to practical life is to define them a little more specifically.

“Nothing is free” usually applies to material things of various kinds, or perhaps some things like romantic love or knowledge that do have their own costs associated with them in most cases. Knowledge banishes the bliss of ignorance; romantic love has a cost in terms of time, energy, emotional toll, and money.  Nothing is free can mean that nearly everything has some cost associated with it; we need not interpret this saying purely in financial terms.

Even what we culturally call ‘inner peace’ (though it is neither inner nor outer in reality) requires us to drop our attachments, illusions and aversions, if only for a moment. In fact, though, peace is present here and now; it is the fundamental nature of awareness itself. Disruption and conflict are proper only to the mind, where, even there, they can be ironed out.  However, this ‘ironing out’ process has a cost of its own, which however, I believe is well worth it.  Experience thus seems to support, at least in most cases, the idea that getting most things in life requires paying some kind of cost.

To determine the truth or falsity of the expression “the best things in life are free,” we need to begin by asking ‘what are the best things in life?’ Free in this context almost certainly means ‘financially free,’ that is, ‘not costing money.’ Things earned can certainly cost money (e.g. if we earn skill in guitar, we may have to spend a great deal of money on equipment, etc., and possibly lessons), so if Craig is right about things earned being among the best things in life, then the expression must be false. Inner peace as defined above is financially free, and consistent with this expression (contrary to what all of the books about enlightenment, runners of seminars, and phony gurus would have us believe). Wisdom can be financially free, but it depends how we arrive at it; if we do so through higher education and a lot of reading, a great deal of money must be invested. However, there are those who arrive at wisdom through other routes, which may not be as financially costly.

Compassion and mindfulness are two other examples of the “best things in life.” These can both be developed without incurring financial cost, and therefore, are consistent with the expression. Time with those we love (e.g. family, friends) can involve money, but it can also simply involve sitting on a free beach on a hot summer day. If the best things in life are experienced, we can turn to things experienced; of these, we find some cost money (e.g. the experience of a movie) and others do not (e.g. the experience of smelling a flower in the park). Therefore, from all of these considerations, our experience seems to suggest that some of the best things in life cost money, whereas others don’t. From this conclusion, it follows that it is not always true that “the best things in life are free,” even though this statement does apply to moments like seeing one’s mother smile after seeing her after a long period away, moments of sitting nestled in the arms of one’s beloved, or moments of relaxing in a hammock with the soft comfort of a gentle breeze.

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