Appreciating What We Have
Abundance surrounds us. No matter where we are, the sky covers the earth, the sun spreads its light, the rain nourishes the soil. Trees grow, insects pollinate berries and tomatoes, crops of all kinds ripen. We laugh with friends, take air into our lungs, wiggle our toes, chew our food, enjoy the tenderness of touch. When these are missing, we notice their absence, but we rarely appreciate them when they’re there.
King Midas discovered this when his lust for gold overshadowed his relationship with his daughter. Not until she was gone to him, transformed into a golden statue, did he understand what really matters in life. True abundance came not from his material wealth, but from the love he shared with her.
Looking for Happiness
Other folk tales offer the same moral. In Italian story, “The Happy Man’s Shirt,” a king’s son is depressed. Nothing brings him joy. The king tempts him with delectable foods and skilled musicians, with games and dances, but nothing appeals to the young man. He feels listless and sad.
Finally one of the king’s astrologers comes up with a plan. They must find a happy man, then trade that man’s shirt for the prince’s. Delighted to have something concrete to do, the king offers a reward to any man who can prove he is happy. Many come to the palace claiming happiness, but the king soon discovers he can tempt all of them with something. None feel content with the life they have.
Then, one day, while hunting in the vineyards with his entourage, the king hears singing. After a quick search, he finds a young man wearing a jacket and hat, tending to some vines.
Happiness Comes from Within
“You there,” the king says. “Why are you singing?”
“I’m singing to express the joy in my heart,” says the young man.
How exciting. Can the king have found a happy man at last?
He grills the man, offering him one reward after another, but the man turns them all down. “I’m happy just as I am,” he explains.
So the king tells him about his son who is dying of melancholy. “The only thing that will save him is the shirt of a happy man.”
Before the young man can respond, the king jumps from his horse and reaches out to unbutton the man’s jacket. But before he has finished, he stops and stares.
The happy man has no shirt.
The Limits of Material Abundance
The happy man could not give away his contentment. He appreciated the abundance all around him, felt grateful fro being alive, took joy in small blessings. But the young prince would have to figure that out for himself. Could he? Could even his father do so? After all, he had spoken with the happy man. Would that help him to see past his power and wealth so he could recognize the importance of kindness and generosity?
Folk tales, myths, and parables remind us that material riches matter far less than friendship and peace of mind. The generous, poverty-stricken householder is rewarded by the visiting angel, while the miser who refuses to share his bounty is damned. In the Bible, we learn that a rich man has about as much chance to get into heaven as has a camel, or thick rope – depending on what translation you use – of wending its way through the eye of a needle. Apparently, the task is impossible.
This made me wonder if wealthy parents read their children fairy tales. Do they avoid the ones that scorn the rich and powerful in favor of stories about obedient sons and brave girls? Do they share the mythic hero tales in which the protagonist must find himself before he can return home to claim his kingdom, but skip the ones about the greedy woman’s downfall?
Greed and Hoarding
In an Algonquin tale, the young Glooscap receives a magic game bag from his grandmother that will expand to hold any number of animals. Thinking to make life easy for himself, he tricks all the animals of the forest to run into the bag and hide. Then he takes them home and tells his grandmother that they shall never be hungry again.
Yet his grandmother chastises him. Greed – and laziness – are bad for Glooscap, but even more, they are bad for the forest, for the animals, and for everyone else who will go hungry. Hoarding is bad for all of us.
Dan Hotchkiss, in his book Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends, describes a tension between our own ability to steward, or manage, our resources, and an ability to trust in the abundance and generosity of God. “When the Israelites complain of hunger in the desert, God gives them manna to eat, but cautions them through Moses not to gather more of it than they need each day, because tomorrow more will come.” 
Although the Israelites didn’t have to seek their food as Glooscap did, they did have to learn to trust that tomorrow they would find something to eat. They had to believe in the reality of abundance.
The Challenges of Poverty
But if abundance is only about money, food, gold, and ornate mansions, we’re in trouble. As the spiritual says, “If religion was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live, and the poor would die.”
I don’t mean to romanticize poverty. No matter what our circumstances, we can appreciate the incredible gift of being alive, and yet hunger, cold, exhaustion, and pain make it tough to notice such pleasures as the shimmer of moats in the light streaming through a window or the scrabbling call of a scrub jay.
Our myths and folk stories encourage kindness, generosity, and respect for the poor and meek. In these tales, God and angels punish those whose greed clouds their judgment, who spurn the ugly or deformed or poor. Jesus tells stories of feasts where everyone is welcome, especially the tax collector, the prostitute, the shepherd, and the poor farmer.
Such tales preach an ethic so unlike what most wealthy families appear to believe, that I wonder what rich parents do read to their children. Or maybe they don’t read to them at all. Having an abundance of money sometimes goes along with a lack of time.
So who reads these stories that help teach us empathy, appreciation, and gratitude? Poor parents often have as little or less time than wealthy ones. Is it only middle class children who learn such old-fashioned values? Indeed, if children living in poverty heard about a poor woman who gave away a loaf of bread to the church each day, would they laugh at her? Even if the minister eventually rewarded her with all the grain she would ever need for the rest of her life?
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Children who grow up in poverty often learn, in contrast to what these stories teach, that good is seldom rewarded and sometimes punished, and that tricks and lies might at least feed you or save you from blame. For them, abundance doesn’t fall from heaven like manna. Abundance is something you make for yourself, and probably by being righteous and honest. At least, not if you’re poor.
Not always if you’re rich, either. After all, wealth seems to come a little easier to those who are willing to cheat, manipulate, and bully those around them.
Although I never thought of myself as rich when I was a child, the town where I grew was full of wealthy families. Some of the children learned values my middle-class parents would have disapproved of. My parents read us those fairy tales and folk stories about poor children whose humble obedience earned them rewards and rich ones whose greed got them in trouble. Listening to such stories, it never occurred to me that the nasty rich people in the tales who came to such miserable ends were like anyone I knew.
Probably no child does, rich or poor. Just as we can interpret the Bible to justify any judgment or perfidy we want, so we can interpret folk tales and myths to fit our beliefs and worldview.
Money and Addiction
Besides, we soon learn that the world doesn’t work like a fairy tale. No matter how good we are, life will bruise and jostle us, sometimes taking from us everything we ever loved. No matter how bad, abundance will find us one way or another. Some of the nastiest people have huge piles of money, own vast businesses, and wield power and control over individuals and governments. They may even take pleasure in thinking about how much they own, yet they probably also suffer because no matter how much they have, it’s never enough.
The addictive nature of money tends to cloud our sense and sensibilities, whether one is rich or poor or somewhere in between. The wealthy can’t stop thinking about money, because they have so much to lose. The poor obsess about it because they starve for the simple comforts of life. I cling to money, myself. Though I give it away sometimes, I spend it regretfully.
If our greed is strong enough, we will abuse and blame others, rationalizing our actions as smoothly as any other person caught up in an addiction. It’s so easy, when one has wealth, to develop a disdain of any who are not so endowed. Far from telling stories of foolish and greedy individuals who lose everything or poor ones who get loving gifts from grateful gods, those who allow their riches to obscure their vision tell stories of lazy and stupid poor people, worthless and undeserving ones. These are the tales they pass onto the children they raise.
The Bounty of the Earth
One antidote to this harsh greed is to remember that abundance isn’t about money. It’s not even about cornucopias of food, feasts, and parties. Abundance is about love, compassion, care for one another. It’s about health, freedom, and kindness.
As the weather cools, the summer crops are slowing down. The raspberries have finished. Yet winter squash is ripening, kale is flourishing, kiwi fruit is almost ready to be picked. Even though our world seems lost in tragedy, disaster, and threat, couples keep having children, we keep telling stories of bravery and honesty and generosity. We love one another, we sing and laugh and hold hands. Every day, the abundance of time and hope and relationship offer themselves to us. They long to bless us and soothe our wounds. Not everyone has the capacity to see or feel this kind of abundance.
Some of us are too sad, like the king’s son in “The Happy Man’s Shirt.” Some of us are in so much pain, or so lonely, or so sick we can see only our misery. For such people in such moments, we can offer the gift of time.
When we sit, silently, in solidarity, acknowledging the other person’s pain without trying to take it away, we offer healing and hope. That someone can listen and look and know in his heart the deep and despairing agony of another’s life can, by itself, make things better. Our understanding, patience, and compassion can open up the possibility of beauty and love. That, all by itself, is abundance.
In faith and fondness,
- Hotchkiss, Dan, Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends, Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2002, 62.