On my way to work recently I took the train as I usually do and along the way a family of three came in, their one son about the age of 5, blond hair bouncing, eyes all alight with wonder, leaping onto a seat next to his dad and earnestly looking at the window. When the train began to move the look on his face was that wonderful mix of startled fear and awe that only the beautiful ignorance of a child seems to possess. At every stop he would watch the doors open, then look at his dad and ask “is it our stop this time?” This would happen each stop, with a persistence that could be, under different circumstances, obnoxious, but looking upon him, seeing the look of love on each of the parent’s faces, and reflecting on the upcoming consumerist orgy that is Black Friday, I could not help but feel an echoing smile appear on my face and the sheer joy of the child seep into my soul.
That startled wonder took me back to sitting in my grandmother’s trailer eating oatmeal, swinging on the swing (which I still love to do), running across the field at recess after a soccer ball, and climbing a random tree in the forested part of the property I grew up on. Simplicity only seems so in retrospect so I will not lament a by-gone era that never actually existed. In comparison to now, with job, multiple relational connections, major projects, train schedules and dealing with criminals, the notion of climbing a tree seems the simplest thing in the world. Yet, I know it was anything but to the child I was, wondering at each branch to grab onto, wary at whether it would break under me and however would I let my mother know I was in trouble. We sometimes look back at our lives and miss things that, given we are looking at them with the eyes of experience and in a different world, we laud as more than what they were. This is not to diminish the experiences but to remind us to put them in context and remember that every situation has a multiple of variables we ignore or are blind to because of the perspective we are applying now.
The simplicity is an easy trap to get into though and it would be easy to lay out a standard trope against consumerism and marketing, at the encroachment upon family that businesses continue to make as they stretch their hours and overlap sales with holidays in increasingly greater ways. But I won’t, at least not entirely. I want to dwell on the joy of the child, not as a simple thing, but as a value to hold tight and cherish. The difficulty with consumerism, with the collection of things, is not the collecting itself or the buying or the marketing, but the value we put on it in our lives. I know of people who swear things don’t matter but make sure they always have someone who can and does buy them varying toys and possessions, and others who swear things do matter but live a life of sparseness. The amount of things matters little, if we do not forget the wonder at each and every event that passes within us, like the child in awe at every swish of the door opening and closing and the prospect of being in a tunnel. However the amount matters a great deal if because of that we lose community and friends who have been there through mess and heartache.
Jesus, in Matthew 16:26 asks’ “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Later in 19:23 he states “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It is not, as simplistic as it may appear, that riches deny a person spiritual mastery but the identification with them. It is not a man with riches that is a problem but a rich man, one who focuses on a particular wealth and ignores the growing separation he has to his fellow people and those who were once close. Othman, the third khalifate after the death of Mohammed, a rich man by any measure, spent much of his time in religious study, fasting and giving of gifts to the poor, who lived in a palace but subsisted on bread and water. The measure of a person then is not in status or possessions, but where in their value structure such plays a role.
Losing that value in life, in the enumeration of each expanding experience, happens in the shift of perspective that occurs when the minutiae are focused on and not the god’s eye view of things. When each moment stops being a experiential finger pointing to the interconnection of all things, of the role we play in each and every life we touch, there it is that we lose the joy of living and begin to define moments by the things. The object matters little, for it is the thought behind it which gives meaning and purpose and creative expression. Whether driving a mercedes or a pinto, whether living in a mansion or a studio apartment, whether making millions or pennies, the form of expression is the only thing that changes, not the potential to express at all. We live life not from grasping each successive thing but by leaping about in wonder at the experience itself. The child could have gotten lost in fear and missed the ride, could have focused on a hand-held game and missed the various shapes whizzing by, but instead he asked with eager anticipation “is it our stop this time?” constantly aware of all that was going on around him and not wanting to miss a moment.
The excellence of our lives is a process of unfolding grace and joy in life. No matter what is in our bank account, no matter how many toys we have to catch that next thrill, life is broader than any of it and community is where life expresses itself ever more abundantly.
© David Teachout