I suppose that each of us has fantasized about winning the lottery or learning that we have a long lost relative that we never knew about who left us a fortune in his will. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof we wonder if it would ruin some vast eternal plan if we were to suddenly become wealthy. We imagine being recognized with monetary gifts for our musical talent or the book that we wrote. We get excited thinking that our hard work and great ideas might launch us into the world of the rich and famous. Who hasn’t thought about what they would do with a grand windfall?
I certainly have dreamed of such things a time or two. I’ve thought about how I might dispense my fortune and how wonderful it would feel not to worry about the bottom line of my finances. Then I realize that even the richest of the rich have to be careful with their spending and sometimes they even become so obsessed with wealth that it becomes the daily driving force of their lives. They carefully watch the stock market and stew over their investments. They have a lifestyle and image to maintain and that in itself is all consuming. Like Ebenezer Scrooge they seem almost greedy in the protection of their fortunes. In truth it sometimes almost seems that there is never really enough money for anyone.
There is a restaurant in a little town that my husband and I often visit that offers a meal that they call “Just Enough.” It’s an apt description because it is not too little or too much. Instead it is just right. I feel that about my own financial situation. I can’t be profligate with the funds that I have, but they generally prove to be adequate for taking me through the day to day demands of living with just enough to cover emergencies. Most of the world’s population is not nearly as fortunate as I am. In fact, the vast majority of people live on the edge of financial disaster. It does not take much to leave them homeless. They probably dream of living like me. I am the rich person in their minds. I try to remind myself of that often.
I recently went to a gathering of friends and we discussed many things over lunch. One of the members of our party is from another country and he noted without judgement of any of us that we Americans do not fully appreciate the lives that we have. He feels that we take our good fortune for granted and are often unsatisfied. He said that from the outside looking in it is difficult to understand why we are not the happiest people on the planet.
His comments made me think of the old fairytale of the fisherman who led a subsistence life. His home was tiny and rundown, but he and his wife were actually quite happy. He went fishing each morning and enjoyed the ocean breezes and the freedom of working outdoors. His work gave him just enough money to have a home and food to eat, but luxuries were out of the question.
One day the fisherman caught a magical fish who promised to fulfill any wish of the man if only he agreed to throw the poor creature back into the water. After asking that he and his wife get a nicer home with a bit more money to enjoy a few extras, the fisherman let the fish go. When he returned home he found a beautiful little house with his wife smiling in a new frock.
It was a wonderful surprise, but the joy did not last as his wife berated the fisherman for not asking for more. She urged him to keep fishing until he had caught the magic creature once again, and so he did. Time after time the fisherman rejoiced when the fish appeared on his hook and time after time he made a new deal to free the creature if he would increase the man’s power and riches. Somehow it was never enough to satisfy the greed that overtook his household. He and his wife were consumed with thoughts of palaces and treasures that they might have if only they asked. Covetousness stole their joy. When it became apparent that the man and his wife would never be satisfied the magical fish took everything away and returned them to the state in which they had originally lived.
I always thought of that magical fish as the symbol of a spiritual leader who wanted to help the fisherman. In the end his lesson for the man was that riches do not bring us the satisfaction that we seek unless we first know what is really important. The man and his wife forgot about the joy they felt with each other in their simple life. They mistakenly equated materialism with comfort and contentment. They lost the ability to appreciate the world around them without all the trappings of wealth.
I suppose that I learned the art of being happy with whatever I have from my mother. I do indeed work to earn extra funds for my frivolous fun, but I long ago quit dreaming of being wealthy or being envious of those who have more than I do. In fact, I understand that there are obligations that come with being rich. Those people living in mansions are scrutinized more than I am. Their lives are often ruled by unspoken rules that do not apply to me. I don’t think I would want to walk in their shoes.
I find it amazing that my mother who had so little in material riches, was one of the happiest, most content people that I have ever known. She always managed to deal with unexpected emergencies by sacrificing and using her ingenuity. She found joy in people and nature, not things. Relationships were what mattered to her and in that regard she was one of the wealthiest people in the world. Her status was measured in her generosity and compassion. People still remember her as someone who shared her wealth of kindness. Perhaps that is the kind of goal that we should all be desirous of achieving. Money is not magic, but love is.