Gratitude and Abundance

Lynne Marie Wanamaker
August 8, 2010


A few months ago, I was driving to Stop & Shop in the middle of one of my usual manic days “off.” I had the grocery lists—the one for the Co-op and the one for the Supermarket. I had the reusable bags. Ticking in my mind like a sports countdown, I had the mental timeline of errands I had to complete before the 3 o’clock School pick up. I was deep in my Friday morning busy-ness and low-level anxiety when I stopped at a red light. 
And then suddenly a thought formed in my mind as a full sentence. If this were a cartoon instead of a sermon it would appear in one of those little cloud bubbles right over my head. 

“I am not worried about how I will pay for the groceries. I am never worried how I will pay for the groceries.” 

In that moment I felt—I really felt—the calm that accompanies that gift. The confidence that I can feed my child. 

I am blessed. I go to the grocery store every week with enough cash—or, if I’ve planned ahead, enough grocery scrip—to buy the food my family wants and needs. 

I have so much more than so many others in this world. 

I have enough. 

How did this insight— that I am able to pay for my groceries without worry, week in and week out— come to me , so that I could be glad for something I have? Why did I get this moment of clarity, the blessing of actually knowing and feeling one of my blessings? 

***

I’ve got some ideas about how that moment of grace found me. I wanted to tackle this topic of Gratitude and Abundance because I want to tell you about a spiritual practice that I’ve undertaken. I want to tell you about a holiday that I invented, and a poster on my dining room wall. Gratitude is a piece of it. But I also wanted to tell you about the miracle I sometimes find lurking behind gratitude, which is abundance, and the even larger source of amazement—for me—which is faith. 

***

I was raised in a family where there was always enough—enough food, enough clothes—though many were carefully tended hand-me-downs--, enough beds and toys and heat. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that “enough” was achieved by my father fixing boats during the day and cars at night, by my mother’s careful budgeting, and sometimes by making hard choices or staggering the household bills. Those strategies and the stress that accompanied them were under my radar as a kid, they happened in the night after I went to bed. But like the laugh track of their sit-coms and the light from the living room lamps, the worry that there might not be enough seeped under my bedroom door and into my dreams. 

I came to believe, as many people believe, in scarcity—that the world is a mean and scroungy place, and that whatever I ache for—money, of course, but also success or love or time—is available only in finite quantities. It’s a picture of the world like the sales at Filene’s basement—all sharp elbows and grabbing. It’s a hard way to live. 

But maybe it wasn’t just trickle down anxiety—from my parents and their parents before them, the bartenders, mechanics, waitresses, shop girls and farmers who are my ancestors, whose labor and thrift bought each generation a leg up in the world. Maybe humans are hard-wired to anticipate scarcity, to husband today’s bounty against tomorrow’s uncertainty. 

These days I make my living as a personal fitness trainer. In this line of work, I read a lot about the science of weight and weight loss. It is commonly understood that there is an epidemic of obesity in our nation. What is less commonly understood is that science doesn’t have definitive explanations or prescriptions for it. Researchers are working to understand why some people gain and retain weight, and why, on the whole, our bodies are bigger than previous generations’. 

One theory is that our human bodies have not yet evolved—have not adjusted to the abundance of food available in our modern lives. There is evidence that some folks are more efficient than others at storing food energy—their bodies hold on to more calories. In a world of scarcity, that would be a tremendously adaptive strength. But in a world with a MacDonald’s on every corner it works against optimal health.

I’m fond of this theory, whether or not it is ultimately proven in the halls of science. It reminds me to have compassion for the seeking, hoarding, husbanding parts of myself that are sure there is not enough to go around. These aspects of me are self-protective; they are committed to my survival in a harsh world. It also reminds me to look around, because the world might not be as harsh as I expect. It reminds me that one way to transcend my deep and terrified belief in scarcity is to acknowledge the abundance that actually surrounds me in any given moment. To see the MacDonald’s, as it were.

***

I believe we have an ethical obligation to acknowledge the abundance around us. Most of us, in this country, at this moment in history, are privileged beyond measure when our lives are compared with others on our planet and throughout human history. It is also ethical because acknowledging abundance facilitates cooperation and mutual benefit in all our human relations. As Unitarian Universalists we are called to “be kind in all we do” and to “build a fair and peaceful world.” Approaching the world as abundant, as having enough for all, is a path to this right relationship. 

I was recently reminded that the practice of conflict resolution asks us to consider our interests rather than cleaving to any single position when seeking the peaceful resolution of a dispute. To consider our interests, because even when we are in conflict with another, it is more likely than not that both parties’ interests may be satisfied by a single creative solution. Whereas holding fast to a particular position—believing that the world is meager and limited and the only way to get what we want is to grab and hold it—risks polarization, disharmony. 

I’ve been thinking of this lately with regard to the intense debate over immigration focused in Arizona. I have never been so proud to be a Unitarian Universalist as I am when I read reports out of the protest movement. (I’m keeping up with the news on our Director of Religious Education's Face Book page.) Through the UUA’s 
Standing on the Side of Lovecampaign, our denomination has partnered with labor and immigrant-rights groups in the response to Arizona’s anti-immigrant law.

I understand what drives people of conscience to protest in the streets, to risk arrest, for the rights of their immigrant neighbors. The UUA, like most major faith groups, has a strong policy position on immigration reform and economic justice. 

In thinking about what drives the opposition—why there is such vitriol against immigrants—I am reminded that even with all our prosperity, many Americans are in hard times. Compared to other generations, this is a time of scarcity and uncertainty, of worry and reduced resources. Jobs, homes, and the opportunities our country stands for are no longer assured for many Americans. Kim Bobo of the organization Interfaith Worker Justice notes, “too many native-born Americans, especially those in economic desperation themselves, blame immigrants—instead of the country’s failed immigration and economic policies—for our economic woes.”

It seems to me that the folks who fight to the end of their breath to deny rights to immigrants have much in common with the folks who risk their lives to enter this country and labor in our fields and factories. They want what we all want: safety and security and a bright future for our children. Perhaps their efforts to deny their immigrant neighbors are an expression of doubt that there could not possibly be enough for all of us. Perhaps they cannot imagine a solution so abundant that there would be enough for all our children. 

But just because it’s hard to imagine doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. 

***

I have a new friend—someone I don’t know well but am exceptionally fond of—who is a devout Christian. And because she has four kids and a husband and I have one kid and a business and a wife we don’t often get to actually talk to one another. So we friended each other on Facebook. 

Often this friend will post a status update that says something about her faith: “What r some ways you rely on God?” she’ll ask her FB friends, or announce: “God’s word is suprising!” after a day teaching Vacation Bible School. One Monday morning she posted, “ Starting the week off balanced..fixing my eye on Jesus the Author and Perfecter of my faith.”

“Fixing my eye on Jesus.” I love this phrase, taken from the Book of Hebrews. It reminds me that even a person with deep and abiding faith must choose that faith again and again, must “fix her eye” upon her inspiration, upon her God. 

I chose to “fix my eye” upon abundance a few years ago. It felt awkward and artificial and pretty corny at first. For example: I cut out a whole lot of maple leaves from pretty scrapbook paper and brought them to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving so we could make a Gratitude Tree on a sheet of poster board. When I pulled out my pencil-box of Sharpies and asked them to write something for which they felt grateful onto each of the leaves, my mom’s and dad’s and sister’s eyes glazed over. They gave me the same flat fish-face of disbelief and disengagement that I often get from my teenage students. 

But I perservered. Now, last year’s gratitude tree hangs in my dining room. Sometimes I notice a guest being drawn to it, standing quietly, reading and reflecting on the blessings my family named. This family craft project slash ritual will be as much a staple of our Thanksgiving from this time forward as the cranberry sauce—or I will die trying to make it so. 

I didn’t leave my gratitude practice at Thanksgiving either. I reclaimed April 15 from the Internal Revenue Service, and on the day that they celebrate collecting my annual taxes, I celebrate the continued viability of my business. I send thank-you notes and gifts to people who have helped me during the year, colleagues who have given me advice or sent me referrals. I call it Gratitude and Abundance Day, and I encourage you to celebrate it too. It puts a very different spin on that annual assessment of income.

And I bought my family an ecumenical blessings book. Each Sunday night we light a chalice and Small reads an expression of simple gratitude from one of the world’s traditions. We are not to the point of a daily grace but we are trying to notice the blessing of our daily bread. 

The effect of this practice—of “fixing my eye” on the abundance around me—has been that I have begun to believe in abundance even when I don’t yet see the evidence of it. I worry a little bit less about finding the things I need—clients, or babysitters, or music for a summer service. Because I give my attention to the fact that my business is thriving, and many people enjoy spending time with my child, this congregation is generous and talented, it all becomes true. My business thrives; my daughter is cared for in loving community, our service is filled with song. 

This trust in something even before it becomes manifest is a new and miraculous blessing to me. It is the blessing my Christian friend knows that I had to discover for myself. It is faith. 

Our blessing book quotes Albert Einstein as saying, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” An abundant world, a world of miracles, in which we have a deep and abiding faith, is a beautiful world in which to live. Let us celebrate the miracle.