Fifty years ago, I lived in a remote seaside village in New Zealand and Harold was my best friend. His parents had abandoned him and he was being raised by an elderly eccentric called Lou Batt. Lou was an old-time socialist and free-thinker, who had bummed round the world between the two world wars. Beside the piano in his living room stood a stuffed giraffe’s neck and head, sporting a bowler hat. On the wall was a large, coloured chart illustrating the weekly development of a fetus in the womb. Lou thought the local Maori girls needs some sex education before they started flrting with boys.
Lou had no love for religion. When he heard that the words ‘The Holy Ghost’ are never used in the title of a church, he soon remedied that. He put a sign on his shed, which conveniently overlooked the cemetery gates: ‘The Church of the Holy Ghost. Pastor Lou Batt’. When the locals stole some of his sheep, he added a thought for the day: ‘Jesus finds lost sheep’. This blasphemy created a terrible fuss but even the regional bishop, despite his best efforts, had to leave Lou’s punishment to God.
Lou felt a good way to inoculate Harold against religion would be to send him to Sunday school. My father, the local schoolteacher, probably had similar sentiments so, for a few Sundays, Harold and I trotted off for a talk, tea, cakes and parlour games with the local vicar.
This mild-mannered gentleman still managed to infect me with one good idea from the Bible. ‘Lay not up for yourself treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourself treasures in heaven . . .’ And it is true that the treasures of the mind are more lasting and satisfying than anything money can buy.
But can we accumulate inner wealth in the same way that we can accumulate money? The vicar probably wanted me to think that if I was well-behaved and kind to others, I would get my reward when I died. All the great religions argue that you can invest in this kind of spiritual superannuation for a good afterlife. So, if this is true, what kind of thoughts and actions gives the best return when you die? What is it that most pleases God, or the gods, or the implacable agents of karma?
According to their representatives on Earth, they’ve always been happy to take cash. You can always convert money into spiritual capital. Until the Reformation in 1513, the Catholic church made a fortune by selling ‘indulgences’. You could buy absolution from your sins, shorten your time in Purgatory, and get a front row seat in Heaven. A similar commercial exchange happens in Asia, where people commonly give money to the religious authorities to neutralise their bad karma and give them a better rebirth.
Of course, people who don’t believe in an afterlife can still be kind, generous and helpful to others, but the payoff is different. Millions of Australians are volunteers, doing what our governments fail to do. They provide the invisible glue that holds our society together and keeps it humane. This is the age-old system of charity, and yet few of those volunteers, even the religious ones, are doing it for heavenly rewards.
We tend to think of charity as a gift of time or money, and we forget that the word really means ‘love’. It refers to a kind of open-hearted sympathy and affection for others. If our good actions come from this state of mind, then virtue really can become its own reward.
Western civilisation is saturated with the ethos of charity, and Jesus deserves credit for this. Most religions encourage giving, but usually only towards their own people or to the religious authorities. Jesus was unique in saying we should actively help anyone who needs help, not just the members of our own family or nation.
Caring for others is often described as the only true spiritual path, but that is taking it too far. If helping others is good for your soul, then fulltime helpers – teachers, doctors, counsellors, not to mention parents – should be the happiest people on earth. Yet how many parents watch their children disappear over the horizon and wonder “What was all that for?” Many people love far too much for their own good and are spiritually exhausted by it.
To love and care for others is not the only way to inner wealth. Some people are just not loving types at all, and it would be patronising to criticise them because of it. No one would regard Galileo, Isaac Newton and Louis Pasteur as spiritually impoverished. Nonetheless, they were all cold, aggressive, often paranoid men who cared for nothing but work and fame. Their satisfaction and achievements were of a different kind.
Thoughtful people have always known that wealth, fame, relationships and health are fragile and subject to loss. So what makes us happy despite this? If we can’t find the eternal, what is the next best thing? What is that remains in our bodies and minds when everything else fades away?
Do we want love in one of its various forms, or wisdom, or a serene detachment, or a certain kind of understanding, or the mastery of a skill, or the appreciation of beauty, or the accumulation of experiences, or even the acquisition of wealth or power or fame? We can be become inwardly rich in any of these ways.
Yet nothing is guaranteed. A Jewish parable in the Bible explains the problem. A master was going away for a year, and he gave each of his three servants gold coins called ‘talents’ to do with as they wished. Two invested wisely and greatly increased their wealth. The third was so afraid of losing it that he hid it away. The master abused him roundly when he returned. “You didn’t even make any interest on it!”, he yells.
The message is that an unused ‘talent’, in its other meaning of ‘ability’, is a complete waste. If you don’t use it, you lose it. You can’t rest on what you think you’ve got. Unless you are increasing your inner wealth, it will gradually fade away. The banknotes under the mattress eventually become worthless.
Our inner wealth comes from the abilities we were born with and what we continue to make of them. Some of them we can parlay into careers. Others ‘talents’, such as the ability to love or to think clearly or to appreciate beauty, are less visible but equally satisfying.
Yet any ability still needs to be cultivated, or it will simply fade away. It is not enough to have known love, or to have had great experiences or insights in the past. Cultivating our
inner wealth, in whatever form it takes, is like getting fit. All it needs is a little time and effort, but we need to do it nearly every day.
Let me give you a small example. A few years ago, I realised that although I loved music, I no longer listened to it. I just gleaned snippets here and there while doing other things. That old hippie slogan came to mind: “If not now, when?” I now consciously devote a little time most days to listening to music.
It is quite easy to check your spiritual balance book. Do you feel rich or poor, at this moment? Has life given you enough or not enough? Are you basically satisfied with where you are at and grateful for what you’ve got? Or do you feel resentful and disappointed, or feel that you’ve lost too much?
It is easy to feel we’re losing out. Careers, skills and health generally decline as we age. People leave us and material assets no longer gives much pleasure. Furthermore, there is nothing new about this feeling. We hear this lament of disappointment throughout history, from the Buddha and Lao Tsu to T.S.Eliot and the punk rockers.
And yet, on the other hand, people are happy and have always been happy, often for no good reason at all. It can be just a matter of attitude. Do you see your glass as half-empty or half-full? There are excellent arguments for either perspective.
Our perception of wealth is always relative. If we compare ourselves to our neighbours, we often feel poor. When we look back over history, however, we see how fabulous wealthy we’ve all become. With few exceptions, no Australian goes short of food, clothing or shelter. Our laws protect us quite well from tyranny. We can easily access any kind of information or cultural products we want, from all of history. The future is not guaranteed, but it never was. We live in peace, free from want, and have remarkable freedom to choose what to do with our time.
So to finish, here are a few words from Irving Berlin on the question of wealth.
Got no diamond, got no pearl Still I think I’m a lucky girl I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night Got no checkbooks, got no banks Still I’d like to express my thanks I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
Got no silver, got no gold What I got can’t be bought or sold I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night
And with the sun in the morning And the moon in the evening I’m all right
© Perth Meditation Centre 2005