Enough is Enough
A poor man lived with his wife and six children in a very small one-room house. They were always getting in each other's way and there was so little space they could hardly breathe!
Finally the man could stand it no more. He talked to his wife and asked her what to do. "Go see the rabbi," she told him, and after arguing a while, he went.
The rabbi greeted him and said, "I see something is troubling you. Whatever it is, you can tell me."
And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with him, his wife, and the six children all eating and living and sleeping in one room. The poor man told the rabbi, "We're even starting to yell and fight with each other. Life couldn't be worse."
The rabbi thought very deeply about the poor man's problem. Then he said, "Do exactly as I tell you and things will get better. Do you promise?"
"I promise," the poor man said.
The rabbi then asked the poor man a strange question. "Do you own any animals?"
"Yes," he said. "I have one cow, one goat, and some chickens."
"Good," the rabbi said. "When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you."
The poor man was astonished to hear this advice from the rabbi, but he had promised to do exactly what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house.
The next day the poor man ran back to see the rabbi. "What have you done to me, Rabbi?" he cried. "It's awful. I did what you told me and the animals are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!"
The rabbi listened and said calmly, "Now go home and take the chickens back outside."
The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back again the next day. "The chickens are gone, but Rabbi, the goat!" he moaned. "The goat is smashing up all the furniture and eating everything in sight!"
The good rabbi said, "Go home and remove the goat and may God bless you."
So the poor man went home and took the goat outside. But he ran back again to see the rabbi, crying and wailing. "What a nightmare you have brought to my house, Rabbi! With the cow it's like living in a stable! Can human beings live with an animal like this?"
The rabbi said sweetly, "My friend, you are right. May God bless you. Go home now and take the cow out of your house." And the poor man went quickly home and took the cow out of the house.
The next day he came running back to the rabbi again. "O Rabbi," he said with a big smile on his face, "we have such a good life now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and we've got room to spare! What a joy!"
(story from 'belief.net') website
I think it was last year that we were treated to the delights of Brian Tamaki's Destiny groupies marching on parliament and proclaiming 'enough is enough'. Their 'enough' was about their perception of the moral slide the government was causing. And yet in his church, Tamaki, and others who have a prosperity slant to their teaching, do not teach 'enough is enough' when it comes to material gain. They teach 'more, more.' I believe that it's more radical in our society to proclaim the kind of 'enough' that is to do with contentment, than the 'enough' that is to do with moral outrage.
We live in a world where our wants have little to do with our needs, or our physical or spiritual wellbeing. We do not develop our desires in a vacuum. Instead they are shaped for us by the world we live in and the imperatives of our culture to live and consume in a certain way. Our wants are manipulated. This is not a particularly new phenomenon, but I'd suggest that the methods and technology used to cultivate our desires towards consumption are becoming increasingly pervasive, subtle, and powerful.
One side effect of this culture of consumption is a decrease in our contentment, and an undermining of our capacity to be grateful. And I believe that gratitude and thanksgiving are actually far more profound keys to a good life than material wellbeing.
Gratitude I believe is a spiritual value, and ought to be a deliberate spiritual practice. And, like the man in the story, often gratitude can be cultivated by learning to recognise the goodness of what we already have in our lives. This involves shifting from a perspective of comparison (what do I have compared to this person, or that person) towards a perspective of renewed attention and enjoyment of what already is.
Thankfulness was a strong feature throughout the lives of the people of Israel. The books of the law instruct the people in several different types of offerings, the main ones being sin and guilt offerings, and also an offering of well-being, sometimes called a thank offering. In very basic terms it seems as though Israelite ritual culture was based on the two foundational concepts of 'sorry' and 'thank you'. I wonder what our culture would be like if these two words got a bit more traction in our personal and social lives.
There's a memorable incident in the gospel of Luke, where Jesus heals 10 lepers, and only one returns to say thank you – the Samaritan. The point of the story seems to be that even the least of Israel's people had lost touch with this spirit of gratitude, taking even miraculous healing for granted, while someone from outside the culture demonstrates the attitude of thankfulness that is the true sign of a relationship with God.
Paul's letter to the Colossians only has four chapters, but four times in the letter he speakes of a practice of gratitude, encouraging these early followers of Jesus to 'let your living spill over into thanksgiving', to 'cultivate thankfulness; and to 'pray diligently...alert, with your eyes wide open in gratitude.' This from the man who was beaten, imprisoned, and made to suffer for his faith.
Meister Eckhart wrote that 'if the only prayer you say in your life is 'thank you', that would suffice.' Gratitude is foundational to all other prayer, all other experience.
Gratitude and contentment are partners, because when we are grateful for what we have, we cease fretting about what we don't have. They are also similar in that neither has much to do with external circumstances, but are an inward disposition, a tendency to look at life's events through a certain lens. Someone who has learned to give thanks will find something in any circumstance to be grateful for. Someone who has a restless, unsatisfied disposition will often find something to be negative about even if they're living in the lap of luxury.
Unfortunately, it often seems to take illness, or loss or crisis for us to discover what we really value, and to be grateful for certain things in our lives. As Joni Mitchell sang – 'don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone.'
However, I believe that gratefulness, thankfulness, is something that can be learned. I believe that in our culture we have unlearned it, but it can be rediscovered. And I believe that as followers of Jesus, we could be at the forefront of its rediscovery. This will come as we align ourselves with the truth that all that we have and are come from God, and that, as Eckhart said, 'thank you' is the only really necessary prayer.
One way to cultivate gratitude is the old cliché of 'counting our blessings'...and remembering to give thanks for specific things. The United Fresh group tells us that we should eat 5+ a day of fruit and vegetables. I know people who make it a spiritual practice at the end of each day to name five things they are grateful for from that day. One person I know who has done this has reported a real shift of perspective over time.
Rabbi Harold Kushner asks: 'Can you see the holiness in those things you take for granted - - a paved road or a washing machine?' Taking a fresh look at those things that have become normal for us is another way to practice gratitude...learning each day to appreciate again the basic things in our lives. This approach can turn every moment into a sacrament of gratitude, as really we live in a world of great abundance. Rather than seeking newness to make us happy, is there a way to value again the goodness of what we already have, or what already is around us?
I read somewhere that gratitude can 'turn a meal into a feast, and a house into a home.' I strongly resonate with this. As long as I relate to the place where I live as fulfilling - or not fulfilling - a list of idealised preferences about size and amenities, all I am doing is building a house inside my head, and cultivating dissatisfaction in my soul. When I look around at my actual house, and choose to be grateful for all the memories held within it, and when I welcome friends into it and eat and drink and laugh...then my house becomes my home and I can be content.
Another way to develop gratitude is to measure our wellbeing by attending to those whose needs are greater than ours. Someone called Denis Waitely said 'I had the blues because I had no shoes until upon the street, I met a man who had no feet.' I'm not saying that we should make light of our very real difficulites and struggles by thinking of those worse off than us. I don't think that's a very helpful approach. But in our world where we are confronted with a lot of images of people who live very glamorous lives, it's worth providing ourselves with an antidote from time to time by remembering how most of the world lives. I have heard reports that people who practice gratitude in their own lives often find themselves increasingly concerned for social justice, increasingly active in the service of the needs of others. I guess that focusing on our wants keeps our attention on ourselves...while focusing on what we already have makes us aware of those who do not have the basics they need for health and wellbeing.
We live in a time where the minority of this world's population consumes the majority of its resources, in the pursuit of a standard of living far beyond our needs. I believe that as God's people, we are called to meet this time by allowing God to create in us a perspective of gratitude, a perspective that is able to say 'I have enough. I am enough.' This perspective runs radically counter to our culture, and to the ways we are formed by the culture. While we pursue affluence, and are driven by personal wants and dissatisfaction, we won't have the will to make the deep changes to the way the world's wealth and resources are shared. We might talk about making poverty history, but until in the West we learn to say 'enough is enough' in our own lives, in our own hearts, then we will perpetuate a situation where the poor do not have enough to stay alive.
I believe that one of the things we have to offer our world, part of the good news of Christ, is the gift of enoughness, the gift of gratitude, the gift of learning to give thanks. I encourage us to learn to practise it in our own lives, and to be the yeast of contentment in a culture that's always wanting more.