When life is going well, it is easy to speak of abundance. When we are happy, in love, employed well, and healthy, things progress with a kind of ease. But oh, those days when everything is falling apart for us, or when the woes of the world are too much with us. Those days it can be hard to look around and see anything but mud puddles.
Yet those are the very days, the very times, that abundance is most needed. A sense of plenitude is not about everything going right. Such fullness has to do with noticing and appreciating what is already there. Consider this scenario:
Life’s led you into a puddle. Are you still staring at your mud-covered feet? Or are you ready to look up and notice that the wide open sky never went away? (from Soul Matters, “What does it mean to be a people of Abundance?” Nov. 2017 packet)
The point of living abundantly isn’t that your feet aren’t wet or mud-covered. It isn’t that there aren’t real dilemmas you face, real struggles, or that the world would be just fine if everyone just noticed that wide open sky. Embodying abundance has to do with looking around to find that sky – to see what is there of beauty and to see it, to really notice it and see it. And that holds the potential to be life-altering, to soothe the soul and provide balm for the spirit. The world wouldn’t be perfect as a result, but it would be better. This way of seeing has to with recognizing the goodness already available to us. Those mud-puddle moments are the exact times to reach deep, deeper than we ever thought possible – into our spiritual storehouses – for hope and love and healing.
Writer Heidi Barr points to this deep-seated and timeless spiritual wisdom when she asks, “What if instead of seeing poverty, despair, pain, and cruelty in the world, we saw opportunities for growth, seeds of hope, room for healing, and the sharing of compassion? What if we could truly embody abundance in every thought?” (“How We Can Embody Abundance Regardless of What We Have,” tinybuddha.com, Heidi Barr) When I first read that I was alternately nodding my head “yes” and shaking my head “no.” Because I’m not sure I could face myself or God or any of you in the morning if I didn’t acknowledge and confront the over-abundance of suffering, privilege, violence, greed, and basic injustice in the world. Any consideration of living a spiritually abundant life can’t ignore any of these.
And yet, Barr is naming a truth. What we bring to and see in a situation matters immensely. Our fundamental perspective on the universe impacts our ability to embody abundance, to share it and to multiply it. Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Angela Herrera says that “abundance is not about having what you want, but about noticing what you have, and multiplying it through sharing it, multiplying it through your manner of being in this world.”
This brings to mind a wisdom story that I return to again and again. It the story of two men who had been injured in combat in war. Both of them were quite ill. They had to remain quiet and calm. They shared a small hospital room which had one window and one door. One man’s bed was near the window. He was permitted to sit up for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon by the window. The other man had to spend all of his time lying flat on his back. There was no television or radio so they talked for hours and hours sharing their life stories. And every morning and afternoon, the man sitting at the window would recount the wonders, the glory, that greeted him beyond the glass. He described a beautiful park with a blue lake where ducks and swans glided along. Children threw bread to the birds and sailed model yachts. Young lovers walked arm in arm beneath the full leafy trees. Beds of roses, dahlias, and marigolds bloomed in bronze, gold and crimson. In one corner of the park was a tennis court. Many days lively tennis matches were being played.
The man lying flat on his back relished theses times. He actually lived for the morning and afternoon hours when the man sitting by the window would describe the world beyond. But one day he grew resentful. And the resentment festered and grew and grew. Why should the other man get to see these incredible sights? he thought. Why should he have the bed by the window? His resentment consumed him. Then one night the man whose bed was by the window awoke, coughing violently, and choking. He tried unsuccessfully to reach the call button for the nurse. The other man didn’t move. He kept his eyes closed as though sleeping. Eventually the room was silent. In the morning the nurses discovered the man by the window was dead.
After allowing a respectable amount of time to pass, the man who had to remain flat on his back asked to be moved to the bed next to the window. After he was moved and the nurses left, he hoisted himself up on one elbow. Moving caused him excruciating pain. It took all the energy he had. But he wanted just one look out that window with his very own eyes. Finally hoisted up, he peered out the window. There before him he saw a blank wall. (100 Wisdom Stories from Around the World, Margaret Silf, ed.)
Who hasn’t experienced envy for what another person has? We know how envy and resentment fester. Who hasn’t ruined their own happiness by focusing on what they lack rather than what brings them joy? Despite looking out and seeing a brick wall, one man was able to see beyond that wall, to see a vision of hope and life and beauty. It isn’t that he didn’t see the wall. He just didn’t let that wall contain him, define all of life for him. He allowed the world to come alive and to share it, to multiply it. How incredible to see through such eyes, to embrace the wide open sky. The other man by focusing on what he didn’t have lost what brought him joy – the stories the other man told him and the companionship. The man whose bed was by the window lost his life, but so too did the other man. How different that story might have turned out had the man lying flat on his back looked for the abundance that existed in his life.
Quaker educator Parker Palmer encourages people to assume that at its core the universe is a place of tremendous possibility. He writes:
The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance. Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need – from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved – are ample in nature? Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available only to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store? The nature of our action will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions. In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war will be able to survive. But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well. (The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring)
When I was growing up, my parents worried about money. I knew that. Money was always tight. But my parents knew how to make stretch things out and recycle whatever they could. They kept a large garden. My mother did extensive canning and freezing every year, not because it was trendy but in order to save money. She made the real milk last by mixing it with powdered milk. When I complained bitterly that I didn’t like it, she never told me that she did it to save money. I figured that out later. She sewed most of my clothes until I rebelled. To me one of the strangest things she did was salvage pantyhose by sewing together two good legs that had no runs in them. I figured that out later too, that pantyhose were a commodity, relatively expensive. There were no family vacations. Going out to eat was a once or twice a year occasion, and it was not anywhere fancy. Oddly enough, the only restaurant I remember going to was Howard Johnson’s. I loved the French Fries. In the summer we would sometimes go out to the Dairy Queen for ice cream or go play miniature golf.
What I may have lacked in financial resources I was paid back with in the extensive hours playing scrabble and other board games, playing make-believe with my sister, reading books, playing with paper dolls, and studying. My parents didn’t live as though they were missing out. Abundance in my family never had to do with money. Abundance had to do with loving life and being a good person and loving each other. Deep in the fiber of their beings, my parents had a belief that life is good. The bedrock of this belief was a deep-seated faith in a bountiful universe, in a God, sometimes mysterious but always loving. My parents taught me to see the glass as half full.
Recently I heard a story that has taken my understanding of the half full glass to a whole new level. It is a true story told by Chester Bennington. He was interviewed as part of project HUMAN, a documentary film capturing stories of the human condition. Bennington says:
The magic moment I had with my grandfather was right after my grandmother died. And I went to go see him and I knew he was hurting. But I wasn’t sure what kind of state he would be in.
And she was his partner 65 years as well as his driver. I went to see him and I said, “Grandpa, how are you doing?”
He said, “did you know that for $4 I can get a shuttle anywhere in the city.”
I said, “wow, that’s great grandpa.”
He said, “well, I went to . . . the grocery store and I went to the woman behind the counter and said I have this list of things, could you help me find them? My wife has recently changed her residence to heaven.”
And I said, “Grandpa, man, you always helped me to see the glass as half full.”
And he leaned back and looked me in the eyes and he said, “it’s a beautiful glass.”
(excerpt from HUMAN, Yann Arthus-Bertrand)
The beautiful glass is our birthright. This is not a Pollyannaish optimism that ignores life’s harsh realities. It is a fierce and heart-opening affirmation of the inherent capacity and capability for beauty and goodness and compassion and fairness. This outlook insists on seeking and finding the best in our lives and the lives of those around us, in the natural world, at work or at home, whether we are alone or in a crowd, with friends or strangers, in the times of quiet and the times when life is coming at us faster than we ever imagined it could. As the French-Swiss poet Jean Petit-Senn wrote, “it’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate.”
May we practice appreciation. May we notice what already exists. May we see the beautiful glass. And may we share and multiply that abundance with each other and the world.
Amen. Blessed be.