Short thoughts today as on location in Portugal giving time to being with family and having very poor internet!
I used to think that being rich would mean I could have the things I desired. In my wildest dreams, I owned that red Ferrari and my own plane and luxury yacht. Of course, I never really thought this a realistic ambition and in truth, when I acquired my first ever car, an old Singer Gazelle with rusted wings for exactly £100, I remember the thrill at sitting behind the wheel. It had a walnut dashboard for heaven’s sake!
Many years on, having been through times of relative material comfort and times when bankruptcy stalked at our door, I have come to realize that being rich has nothing to do with how much I own. Material things offer a chimera of satisfaction that is both fleeting and shallow. No sooner is the coveted item acquired than the next best version is available and just out of reach. Now don’t get me wrong, I love new stuff, I love to experience new things. I did really enjoy that old Singer Gazelle until the rust took over and I transferred my affections to the shiny white Triumph that came next!
But as the years have progressed and I’ve flown that plane, driven that car and visited that far flung place, I realize these things are all relative and their impact on my well-being fleeting. I doubt many reading this would disagree, but how often have I fallen for the allure of the next best thing. So what makes me feel rich and never ceases to satisfy? In my experience, it is not defined by acquisition, but by my capacity to give. How does that work? It works when my own life and being is replete with that which can be shared with others. It can be material when that material enhances the lack of another, it can be time given, meals shared, thoughts expressed, comfort extended, lives transformed for the better. It can be small in the eyes of those who judge success by numbers or it may impact way beyond what we can touch or see. But in the end, it feels like true riches.
Ironically, this kind of life cannot happen if we have nothing to give, and this paradox means acquisition is an essential element. Now, though, my acquisition has a purpose beyond myself. Having the resources to share with those around us brings true satisfaction. Those resources can be material, but often the most precious gift is time coupled with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capacity to enhance the life of another. Paul seems to be pressing this very point when writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, “Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.” Understanding these thoughts is one thing, living this way is another. But the deeper satisfaction of the times when I do give to others grants a sense of being rich that comes from nothing else.
So true that true riches are about what you contribute, not what you have… which, btw, means that the poor are often richer than the rich, as they are often more generous and more hospitable (my Sunday sermon!). But we have so appreciated your contribution to our lives together here in the Alentejo – thanks!
Hah, a contentious topic! Money, money, money… and as a writer, as you can imagine, I have many thoughts on this area. Take the funding of my book, for instance, which is being paid for by me working around the clock to save up for me to take a sabbatical, and us putting off having a honeymoon for a fifth year. I’m forever told by a wide range of friends and family that I should do something (often the word used is ‘anything’) else, but in all honesty I would prefer to live in a cardboard box under a railway bridge and write rather than be something I’m not supposed to be and have wealth. To me, working hard to improve my skill and create a text that I think will make people happy is all the richness I want.
I find it fascinating that people struggle to get their heads around this. But they really do.
This suggests to me that you are entirely right in noting that ‘rich’ has become dislocated from its true core.
I wonder how much the biblical focus on ‘richness’ is an underpinning social construction within this discourse. To be ‘rich’ is such an imperative, but where does that basic idea come from in the first place? I did some interesting work recently into post-development theory, where aid workers to villages in so-called ‘developing’ countries asked where the poor houses were, and were proudly told that there were none. After US and UK aid had flooded the places with improvement packages, the aid workers returned and were greeted by beggars who bemoaned their poverty and cried for help. This exposes the very notion of being ‘rich’ as not only a socially constructed concept, but also as a highly ethnocentric one. I would also argue that it is quite toxic.
I often feel that the bible introduces an unhelpful dichotomy into the notion of ‘rich’. One either is, or is not, yet one has to strive to be. There is no middle ground, despite that middle ground being the grey space that most occupy. I agree with your observation and think that the word could be exchanged for ‘full’. I prefer this image, as it expresses optimism in a way that is dislocated from the bleak individualistic goal of capitalism. Rather than asking how rich my life is, I would like to ask how full it is. In asking that question, ‘fullness’ is very much about using my own time and space to be with others as well as doing my own thing, which I think (hope?) is Paul’s point. Am I being the best I can be within my sociocultural context? That is the measure of richness.
Thanks for this. I would love to hear more about your book when we visit. Thanks for the alternative wording – the idea of having a full life does seem to encompass a more flexible application and I had not thought about the somewhat extreme connotation implied by the word rich in the biblical context. Just found a short period of internet connectivity so quick reply back.