When All You Wanted Still Is Not Enough
Reflection on Rabbi Harold Kushner
Rabbi Harold Kushner is a remarkably compassionate and insightful man. Most people know him as the author of the best seller, Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People…. Well, when searching for a topic for the this week, and finding myself fresh out of inspirations found myself turning to him again…
Whenever I am looking for a solution to a complex dilemma, I look for a sense of truth, as William James would define it, that works for me and that gives me valuable insights that fosters positive or constructive results.
So on Friday, I find myself looking for timeless advice… Not that my office doesn’t have a lot of contemporary magazines and newsletters, scattered and piled up everywhere, but there is something to the realization that consulting sources that people have been looking at for centuries, and finding a source of useful and insightful truth that is pragmatic and worthwhile, often becomes a preferred source for me…
On Friday, I scoured my bookshelf and file cabinets for something I wanted to say, since my original topic chosen months ago, had dried up on me… I am sure you all have had it happen… You know, when something in your heart or mind keeps you foggy or less focussed, or when you encounter an author who doesn’t make sense without lots of struggle, that is when you will return to a more simple solution, something basic, timeless and true… So, as I was looking through my book stacks, one of Kushner’s book fell out of its dusty place in front of me…
Realizing that I was searching walking around somewhat frantically, trying to unearth a sermon that people could relate to in their various approaches to the spiritual life, and trying to muster up the best of the profound mystical insights I could obtain from William James, all my efforts were not cutting it, it just wasn’t happening… and since I put great personal stock in how coincidences and synchronicities happen, a book fell from its shelf, I picked it up this dusty book and said, Ah Ha, Its a sign!
What I found was another Kushner book, one that is still very relevant to our society today. That book title is: When Everything You Ever Wanted Wasn’t Enough… Recently, the lessons from Wall Street, and big business have made glaring headlines… Materialism and the arrogance of greed have become widely know, even vilified as being the contributing cause for our economic meltdown… It seems that what we wanted, as a society, was not enough to prevent hardship for our country… but it might be exactly the challenge and experience that we, as a nation or as a culture have needed to redeem the value of time, and to assess what is truly meaningful, valuable, and worthwhile in our lives.
The main idea Kushner forwards is an important one to me personally, and it might be one that you share… Namely this: If you define success as being outside oneself… By career, money, possessions, lifestyle, popularity or accolades, etc., you will find it becoming increasingly hollow- self emptying, and your best efforts can prove to be futile and frustrating!
The latest studies on happiness- and there has been a recent explosion of books both popular and scientific, dealing with the nature of happiness- how to get it, how to keep it, etc… has ignited a marketing frenzy… Where many of these serious researchers agree is this: while money is necessary for providing the essentials of life in a culture like ours, once you have a basic middle class income, having any more doesn’t promote happiness; particularly if one finds themselves exhausted, striving, and “checked out” emotionally because they have made success outside of oneself such a central goal…
My family accountant and I go back many years… And whenever I would go in to see him, we would have some interesting and often very thoughtful dialogues. These meetings and talks began early in my life- since he first observed that my course in life was going to be a unique one- From my early twenties on, I was driven by my ideals, or by my pursuit of non-material goals…
Sometimes, he would often relate anonymous stories about his clients to me, (That was before he would laugh at my chaotic tax statements, chits of paper, and then tell me to relax… He could figure it all out for me!)
As a devout Catholic, he said I bet that even when I was a therapist, and now as a minister, that I did not hear what he heard… In fact, now that so many people have stopped going to confession, he exclaimed that I should be the one wearing the collar!
He declared that he hears things about money- that last great social taboo in our culture, than would singe your ears! People are so sophisticated- they will talk about sex, politics, and other controversial issues glibly or with complete nonchalance… But money… That where the real fear of God is!
He has mentioned that he has clients who are millionaires, and are constantly broke… That h was baffled when people earning large incomes comes into to see him in search of tax loopholes because they feel so pinched all the time… We agreed that he certainly has heard his share of confessions…
And then he also spoke about how our culture, through all of its mass media advertising, contributes to this constant sense of being dissatisfied with one’s life so that we have go out and buy things, or feel inferior or lacking… When talking about this book with him, he said he thought he knew what Kushner was saying to us: Don’t confuse your net worth with your self worth! A very wise man!
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung also observed this about the dilemma and the tension of looking outside one’s self for happiness or acceptance…
“We humans overlook the essential fact that the achievement of what our society rewards, or encourages is won or attained at the cost of the diminution of one’s personality.” Think about this! Is Jung right when he declares that status and power are attained at the expense of becoming a healthy, balanced, open, and compassionate self?
The current economic crisis, as I try to see it, might be a vital correction on materialism because it fosters within each of us a time of reflection and assessment as to what are those things of real value in our lives? It asks each of us the question: What will make us happy, secure, or truly fulfilled?
In some ways, as a whole culture since 1980’s, we have allowed ourselves to become part of a culturally based morality play; A story where each of us play but one main character: Dr. Faustus, where each of us can be seen as having sold our souls for a devilish sense of economic security! Now, that we are reaping the results of a runaway materialism, the positive side of this is the necessary corrective, would be the concerted effort to foster and sustain a new way of defining what is of real value to our lives!
Now returning to Rabbi Kushner’s book… It is both pragmatic and inspirational… And here is one piece of information that still startles me… Remember, you can read Scripture without ever calling yourselves religious… In fact, the word religion doesn’t occur in the Bible! Did you ever realize that? It is a Latin word, which comes much later in church theology and history… (religiare- to bind or restrict; or to unify and to lift up) The closest the ancient Biblical text had for religion was the phrase, ” The fear of the Lord” which, as you all know, doesn’t mean fear, fright or apprehension… It means reverence and respect for anything that is good, holy, right, or true in ourselves, in God, or in the creation.
For the logophiles among us… When did awe become awful, and when did awful mean something terrible? Maybe the kids have it right when they use the word awesome its really awesome, so much!
Kushner further declares this provocative idea: any religion that bases itself on fear, guilt, or control serves to depreciate both God and humankind! He declares that it is God, humanity, and religion at its worst!
Rabbi Kushner states that when we need to find our best answers, that the best place to look was in the most dangerous books! Danger, in this context, means the ideas in these books could change you, change your mind, change your outlook on life- so if you are wanting security, safety, or the status quo, you should avoid all dangerous books! Kushner declares that the most dangerous book in the Bible is also the most irreverent, the most challenging, and the most fulfilling in its simple, wise teachings. It is the book of Ecclesiates… which comes after Psalms and Proverbs in the Protestant Bible. We know its contents best from Chapter 3, For Everything There is a Season, but it contains much more!
This book, written some 2500 years ago, chronicles the life of a somewhat bitter and cynical man. In its pages, he looks out over his life, all his worldly attainments, and exclaims ” That’s all a product of my pride and vanity! It means nothing! Across the verses and along the pages, the author moves from knowledge to wisdom, from self concern to charity…
7 We can understand the ancient author’s struggles that wealth never can replace the value of friendship, neither does it ever promote real loyalty, caring or compassion. Additionally, we can easily recall that throughout the Bible we have the case where it is the rich that God actually pities! When their money is gone, they truly have no one and nothing… They are desperate, fearful, and alone…
Growing up, and due to my ongoing idealistic choices, I am someone who never has had very much money… Over my 30+ years in both the helping professions, and liberal ministry, I have not made very much money, and yet I will willingly admit to be being seduced by advertising, credit cards, or believing that somehow the ownership of something nice or something grand- something the world cherishes, might fill in the cracks around my life’s struggles for repairing my sense of self acceptance. Through my deeper reflective study of religious wisdom, I have come to understand, we cannot literally or emotionally afford to define ourselves that way!
Church participation assists us with keeping the world- its tests, trials and its temptations- in perspective; while we can get dismayed by the daily headlines, we cannot risk becoming either too gullible nor too cynical…
I say that because, at its best, a church involves itself in compassionate solutions, and supports one another’s good work to alleviate social inequities and economic suffering. We do this by how well we demonstrate our interdependent bonds of respect, support, and love. That is what enriches and sustains us.
For Kushner, for me, and for many others, a belief in God is no excuse not to actively pursue the truth down many paths, One must risk finding dangerous ideas in order to grow. One’s religious outlook, from the secular to the mystical- should always be asking tough questions … About priorities, values, and which virtues you will try to more conscientiously practice, and your path will ask if you practicing them enough to get your ego our of the way! For me, God is that presence that asks, that urges us beyond our smaller social selves towards a wider and deeper concern for the welfare of others. However, my understanding of God is not only dangerous, its also sneaky… It surreptitiously affirms and declares that in service to others, I will find my own inner peace… my greatest value, my true riches…
In his concluding chapter, Rabbi Kushner asks the readers to ponder what I consider to be the best question for a New Year, or any time in our lives: Does it make a difference how I live my life? Yes, it does!
Each of us has to take the this journey, Kushner says… From defining ourselves from the outside, to affirming ourselves by who and what we are on the inside… From putting ourselves or our opinions first, to learning how to listen and how to serve people and our planet. Another wise Rabbi Abraham Heschel puts it this way… When I was young, I used to admire those people who were clever,… Now that I am an old man, I admire those people who are kind.”
When all you ever wanted isn’t enough, maybe the lesson is that you have wanted all the wrong things! For one’s life to have value, it has to express caring and commitment … And as I see it, it will be through your outreach, and your participation in our church community, you will come to know what you really wanted, what you really needed, and what is truly enough in your life! AMEN