Recently I was listening to a podcast on our relationship to money by my favorite minister, Jeremy McClung of the Muskoka Community Church, which left me asking the question: When is enough, enough? This is an important question to ask especially at this season of excess we call Christmas.
In his talk, Jeremy handed out index cards and asked us to write “stuff I have” on one side and to write “stuff I want” on the other. We were to make a detailed list of everything we own (land, cars, houses, clothes, electronics, appliances, toys etc).
What surprised me was how much was on my “want” side! Even though I have everything I need, and more, the list of what I wanted was longer than the list of what I owned. This was profound! I urge you to take out a sheet of paper right now and do this exercise for yourself.
My income comes from a small disability pension, supplemented by some paid work, and I live in a small one bedroom apartment in a “geared to income” building. Some people look at my lifestyle and long for me to be better off financially, and sometimes I wonder if they’re right. On the one hand, the Bahá’í Writings say:
Having attained the stage of fulfilment and reached his maturity, man standeth in need of wealth, and such wealth as he acquireth through crafts or professions is commendable and praiseworthy in the estimation of men of wisdom. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
My well-wishers see the transformative path I’ve been on for the past couple of decades, and how far I’ve come in ridding myself of the anxiety and depression that robbed me of my life, and they think it’s time for me to get back into the “real world” and get paid for all the work I do.
I ask myself: can I make a living doing all the things I do, so that I can get off my disability pension? For years, I took the following Writing to heart, and tried to apply it.
The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words, 82)
Working in corrupt work places just made me sicker.
Now, this quotes shows how I long to live my life:
Thou hast asked regarding the means of livelihood. Trust in God and engage in your work and practice economy; the confirmations of God shall descend and you will be enabled to pay off your debts. Be ye occupied always with the mention of Bahá’u’lláh and seek ye no other hope and desire save Him. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 375)
Through quotes like this I’ve come to realize that my job is to take care of the work and God’s job is to take care of the money. It doesn’t say “paid work”, and God’s way of taking care of the money doesn’t always come from a paycheque! I have been taken care of in ways I couldn’t have imagined (from soup kitchens and food banks that treat me as a “guest”; to random strangers sending me money in the mail; to finding ways to barter; to people giving me clothes and yes, even from some paid employment. I have more than enough, and I am grateful.
The question is: do you want to live like that? It will mean a lifestyle very unlike the ones you’ve had to date.
Have you heard about the Peace Pilgrim? She’s one of my heroines. When she was in her mid-40’s, she decided to walk across the United States, and continued to do so for 28 years, to talk to people about the importance of peace. All she had were the clothes on her back; a smock with a pencil and a small pad of paper; a comb and toothbrush, and that was it. She had no organizational backing, carried no money, and would not even ask for food or shelter. She travelled in the south during the winter and the north during the summer. She had absolutely nothing – no means to support herself except total reliance on God. She said in all the years she did it, there were only 3 days in a row where she didn’t have anything to eat or anywhere to sleep. Every single other day, people would feed her and/or invite her to spend the night. One time she was walking in a freak snow storm. It was so snowy that she couldn’t see 5 feet in front of her, so she walked down an embankment to huddle under a bridge, out of the blinding snow, and there she found a fridge-size cardboard box, with a blanket and pillow in it! Without a word of a lie! God took care of her every need, even before she knew she had it. Click here to read reviews about her biography.
I found her total detachment really inspiring! Since then I’ve had many glimmers of how this works in my own life, which is “poor” by many people’s standards, and yet, I have had a rich and full life; totally blessed, to be able to do the work I love.
In terms of acquiring wealth, the Bahá’í Writings also say:
In earthly riches fear is hidden and peril is concealed. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 219)
There’s a great story which illustrates the principle that the best possible life is not by having more stuff, but by letting go.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a story about a Persian believer’s journeys and how he could not sleep at night while in the wilderness for fear of someone stealing his new shirt, a new gift from a prominent person. After several sleepless nights he decided to get rid of the shirt so he could relax. (Rafati, Vahid, Sources of Persian Poetry in the Baha’i Writings, Vol. lll, p. 80)
I understand what this means! One time I had so many journals filled with insights about my childhood and all that I’d suffered and how it made me the person I was. I was attached to these journals and longed for my son to read them someday, to know who I was. I was so afraid that they would get ruined in a flood or fire that I was actually contemplating buying metal boxes to put them in to keep them safe! I realized the folly of this thinking, and because I was soon going on pilgrimage and wanted to empty myself before I went, I threw them all into the garbage dump (where they belonged!) instead.
Another time I was going out with someone who lived in a small village where everyone knew everyone else. He was in fear that someone would steal his antiques and was considering buying an alarm system for the house. I couldn’t imagine living with so much fear and suspicion. It would be different if he was in downtown Detroit, but the crime rate in this village was next to nothing. Surely it would be better to live with just enough, than to live in fear all the time!
When you move, you find out how much stuff you have; and how much you want. When I was pioneering to Labrador, I took this quote seriously:
Reliance on God is indeed the strongest and safest weapon which the Bahá’í teacher can carry. (Shoghi Effendi, Power of Divine Assistance, p. 221).
What this meant to me was that I was to go with total reliance on God, trusting Him to meet all my needs, just as the Peace Pilgrim had. I sold or gave away just about all of my worldly goods. I arrived in Labrador City with 2 cats and 2 suitcases; one suitcase was filled with cat supplies and the other had my clothes; a sleeping bag and inflatable air mattress; a pot, pan, and dishes and cutlery for 2 (so I could invite someone over for a meal). I had enough! I had everything I needed to live quite comfortably. I got a 3 bedroom unfurnished apartment (which was easier to find than a 1 bedroom); and could have lived with so little forever! Unfortunately our culture demands a certain lifestyle, though, and within 6 months I had that apartment filled with furniture and kitchen supplies (mostly acquired through yard sales and moving sales). When is enough, enough? I had enough, but I wanted more. I wanted to look like everyone else, but I didn’t need any of it.
Most of our “stuff” makes our lives easier or better in some ways. What we fail to realize is that much of it also takes something from us in terms of storage, cleaning, repairs and maintenance. It’s not a wonder how stressed we feel! Houses are a good example. When we buy our first house, we have to furnish it; and then buy all the tools to maintain it (ladders, lawn mowers, snow blowers etc. The list is endless!). When I was a home owner, I was always caught unprepared when the roof leaked, or the furnace needed replacing or when the tiles fell off the bathroom walls. I couldn’t afford the repairs and didn’t know where the money was going to come from. Needless to say, it went on the credit card, and then I was so far in debt, I nearly faced bankruptcy more than once. Now I live in an apartment and all the energy I used to spend on mowing lawns and maintaining gardens and shovelling snow, can be used in service to others; and all the money I save in not having to maintain a home has gone into paying off my debts so I can live debt free. It’s a much simpler lifestyle and has freed me up both financially and emotionally.
Have you ever wondered why people in cultures where they have nothing, seem so much happier? It’s because the more stuff we have, the more stress we have. I think it’s why we love to go camping. We take everything we need with us, and leave the rest behind. Most Canadians take more stuff camping than most of the rest of the world owns.
Despite what the “Occupy” movement would have us believe, the average North Americans are some of the richest people on the globe. The following really puts it into perspective:
If you could fit the entire population of the world into a village consisting of 100 people, maintaining the proportions of all the people living on Earth, that village would consist of:
- 57 Asians
- 21 Europeans
- 14 Americans (North, Central and South)
- 8 Africans
There would be:
- 52 women and 48 men
- 30 Caucasians and 70 non-Caucasians
- 30 Christians and 70 non-Christians
- 6 people would possess 59% of the wealth and they would all come from the USA
- 80 would live in poverty
- 70 would be illiterate
- 50 would suffer from hunger and malnutrition
- 1 would be dying
- 1 would be being born
- 1 would own a computer
- 1 (yes, only one) would have a university degree
If we looked at the world in this way, the need for acceptance and understanding would be obvious. But, consider again the following…
- If you have never experienced the horror of war, the solitude of prison, the pain of torture, were not close to death from starvation, then you are better off than 500 million people
- If you can go to your place of worship without fear that someone will assault or kill you, then you are luckier than 3 billion (that’s right) people.
- If you have a full fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are wealthier than 75% of the world’s population.
- If you currently have money in the bank, in your wallet and a few coins in your purse, you are one of 8 of the privileged few amongst the 100 people in the world.
- If your parents are still alive and still married, you’re a rare individual.
- If you’re reading this message, you’re extremely lucky, because you don’t comprise one of those 2 billion people who still can’t read. (source unknown: http://www.movebeyond.net/417/know-no-limits/quote/lightening-in-a-jar/ )
Some people have suggested: “the more wealth I attain, the more I will be able to travel to developing countries to help others or donate to worthy causes”. I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly part of the prevailing wisdom, but only God knows what He wants from us. One the one hand He says:
If wealth and prosperity become the means of service at God’s Threshold, it is highly meritorious; otherwise it would be better to avoid them. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
On the other, the Bahá’í Writings tell us that more and lasting things are accomplished by poor people, than by rich:
How many kings have flourished in luxury and in a brief moment all has disappeared! Their glory and their honor are forgotten. Where are all these sovereigns now? But those who have been servants of the divine beauty are never forgotten. The result of their works is everywhere visible. What king is there of two thousand years ago whose kingdom has lived in the hearts? But those disciples who were devoted to God – poor people who had neither fortune nor position – are to-day trees bearing fruit. Their banner is raised higher every day. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy, p. 137)
I’ve learned that a life well lived doesn’t consist of an abundance of possessions. Sometimes we use “stuff” to fill the holes in our soul, but we aren’t going to find what we want from more stuff. There’s danger in having more than you need, because it only creates more wants. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more; or having aspirations – but the danger is that it distracts us from what’s really important. We can spend so many hours focused on getting this “one thing” that we aren’t living in the present moment and we aren’t focused on what really matters – teaching, service and acquiring virtues.
For example, I knew that I would be getting some money from my father’s estate, so for the three years it took for the money to arrive, I was continually thinking of what I wanted to spend it on. I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of it all; spent hours researching every item carefully, to make sure I knew that I was buying the best possible quality for my money. I measured and remeasured to make sure it would fit. When the money finally came, I threw it all out and decided to buy a car instead! I wasted hours of my life on this endeavor! And even when I got the car, I didn’t like it and traded it in on another one, losing money in the process. What a waste! I was certainly heedless of this quote:
Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of this world; their minds are so circumscribed by exterior manners and traditional interests that they are blind to any other realm of existence, to the spiritual significance of all things! They think and dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous delights and comfortable surroundings bound their horizon, their highest ambitions centre in successes of worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep! Like the animal, they have no thought beyond their own physical well-being. It is true that these necessities must be despatched. Life is a load which must be carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of a human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 98)
We don’t like to think of ourselves as greedy, but when I looked at the list on the other side of my index card, and truly understood my position in the world, I had to realize that I was. We all need to be on guard against all kinds of greed, especially at Christmas. The Bahá’í Writings tell us:
He should be content with little and free from avarice. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 50)
Why, then, exhibit such greed in amassing the treasures of the earth, when your days are numbered and your chance is well-nigh lost? Will ye not, then, O heedless ones, shake off your slumber? (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 127)
There is a danger in becoming attached to what we have. Another story I like illustrates this point:
Whereas riches may become a mighty barrier between man and God, and rich people are often in great danger of attachment, yet people with small worldly possessions can also become attached to material things. The following Persian story of a king and a dervish illustrates this.
Once there was a king who had many spiritual qualities and whose deeds were based on justice and loving-kindness. He often envied the dervish who had renounced the world and appeared to be free from the cares of this material life, for he roamed the country, slept in any place when night fell and chanted the praises of his Lord during the day. He lived in poverty, yet thought he owned the whole world. His only possessions were his clothes and a basket in which he carried the food donated by his well-wishers. The king was attracted to this way of life. Once he invited a well-known dervish to his palace, sat at his feet and begged him for some lessons about detachment. The dervish was delighted with the invitation. He stayed a few days in the palace and whenever the king was free preached the virtues of a mendicant’s life to him. At last the king was converted. One day, dressed in the garb of a poor man, he left his palace in the company of the dervish. They had walked together some distance when the dervish realized that he had left his basket behind in the palace. This disturbed him greatly and, informing the king that he could not go without his basket, he begged permission to return for it. But the king admonished him, saying that he himself had left behind his palaces, his wealth and power, whereas the dervish, who had preached for a lifetime the virtues of detachment, had at last been tested and was found to be attached to this world — his small basket. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 1, p. 76-77)
Contentment is being happy with what we have, and being grateful for it. This is what it means to be truly rich. The Bab has given us this prayer, which says in part:
Bestow upon me my portion, O Lord, as Thou pleasest, and cause me to be satisfied with whatsoever thou hast ordained for me. Thine is the absolute authority to command. (The Báb, Baha’i Prayers, p. 55)
We have enough. All of us! Ask yourself: If I never get another thing, could I be content with what I have? Most of us would have to answer yes!
I don’t think we’re all being called to get rid of everything we own and give it to the poor or pioneer to Africa, but to be able to get to the point where you could do it, is the kind of heart change God is looking for.
God might be calling you to let go of your stuff; or to change the way you relate to it; or to give it all to Him; or to pay Huqúq on it so it’s purified. Pray about what you’re learning here, and pay attention to what you’re being called on to do with this information. And realize that you have enough!