By degrees

So if sufficiency isn’t so much a figure as an attitude, where do we find it?

I think of my dentist, who once admitted, “I don’t do this for the money. I do it because I love what I’m doing.” It’s skillful work, after all. His wife runs the office cheerfully and efficiently, and has seen no need to go computerized, either. (Talk about impressive!) Everyone, coming and going, seems to love Marj, especially.

They’ve found an enjoyable balance in their lives. Their house overlooks the “big lake” but isn’t on the waterfront. They have a fun sports car. His photographs adorn the office. And even in the city, an impressive array of birds comes to the feeders outside his office windows.

So it’s not necessarily getting away from the workplace that defines satisfaction.

Security, however, is a big factor. Our dentist and his wife aren’t worried about being fired. Likewise, college tenure allows many professors the satisfaction of pursuing their research and teaching without fear of dismissal.

Let me suggest that satisfaction requires a suitable tension. This is a paradox, of course, as the two sides of the coin reappear. It requires limits and focus, as well as sufficient resources. It’s a comfort zone, not a pyramid.

Marla Cilley, the Fly Lady, touches on this when she proclaims, “Tomorrow is my weekly cleaning hour. Yes, I only spend one hour blessing our home. If truth be told, I only spend 10 minutes a chore. When the timer goes off, I stop what I’m doing and go on to the next chore.” She has a list and sticks to the plan. “The beauty of this system is that it gets done and it does not have to be done perfectly.” Baby steps, she insists, are just as good as mastery. “Housework done incorrectly still blesses your family.”

I hear in this the potential for degrees of satisfaction. That is, maybe we’ve been looking at “enough” through the wrong lenses. Freedom would be nice, of course. Taking steps to improve our financial security, meanwhile, can be seen like Fly Lady’s weekly cleaning – even baby steps help.

Jesus reminds us to ask for daily bread – enough for our needs now – rather than the whole shebang at once. In a way, this reintroduces us to the idea of the seed leading slowly to harvest. The bread also represents seed someone else planted and harvested, and our place in this exchange.

Degrees of satisfaction also suggests an awareness of economic tradeoffs. No matter how many shoes you own, you can wear only one pair at a time. You can’t have it all. On a day off, I have to decide – am I going to the beach or the mountains? They’re in opposite directions. In marriage, you promise to “forsake all others” and thus find satisfaction in wedded bliss.

Satisfaction now becomes seen as:

  • Engaging in an ongoing process, rather than a finished – and static – product.
  • Having the tools and resources to engage in the work at hand. (Not more than you can handle or need.)
  • Moving toward your own goals and values – not the neighbors’.
  • Enhancing personal safety and security. Providing sufficient comfort.
  • Knowing your limits and focus.
  • Learning to live below your income. Becoming debt free.
  • Balancing … including your time. And appreciation for the blessings already extended to you.
  • Recognizing clutter as a symptom of overabundance and imbalance. Maybe even as a consequence of a cluttered schedule.
  • Seeing ways you are financially empowered, rather than victimized.
  • Shopping in locally owned enterprises, when feasible. Knowing your merchants and growers.
  • Leaving a place better than you found it.
  • Remembering to play.
  • Enjoying your body. Exercise. Dance. Swim. Infinitum.
  • Giving joyfully.
  • Realizing that no matter how wealthy you are, there’s always somebody richer out there. (And for the one person this does not apply to, there’s no harm in coming down a few notices in the next listing of the world’s richest people.)

*   *   *

“Enough,” we are seeing, is a matter of something other than money. That’s not to deny money’s function in empowering the conditions. “The rich man,” according to the Talmud, “is the man who is satisfied with what he has.” (And if you’re not satisfied with what you have? Maybe it’s time to clear it away and be rid of the annoyance.)

From this perspective, satisfaction can be a result of simplifying – taking a moment to acknowledge the treasures in our presence.

Paul Hawken advises, “Always leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy, satisfied, or even joyous. That has more of an effect on economic well-being than any other single factor.” Again, we’re reminded of the importance of margins in our lives – spaces for breathing and imagination.

Small, unadorned moments are priceless. In the wintertime, I’ve loved coming home from the office in the wee hours (I worked the second shift) and settling in on the kitchen floor, my back against the refrigerator, to watch the flames in our wood stove. This is no ornamental showpiece – the firewood heats about a third of our house – and part of my activity is to make sure the fire will continue until my wife wakes up in the morning. Maybe I’ll even have a glass of wine, to wind down. Let my thoughts wander. Be grateful. In the summer, this might happen more as a matter of taking my lunch outside before dashing away. View the changes in the garden. Look up into the trees. Observe the birds and parade of flowers. Listen to my wife, if she takes a break to sit with me. The commute itself is better if I can allow an extra five or 10 minutes, and then stop off somewhere. Once, for instance, it was to detect moose tracks between deer tracks in the snow. One week, I finally stopped to nose around two graveyards and learned there had been a Colonial ironworks in the neighborhood.

For Mary Clark, this is a matter of maintaining “Simplicity of Focus” (Quaker Life magazine, June 1998). “Maintaining equilibrium in the midst of a whirlwind requires constant vigilance. We are at our simplest, yet our greatest complexity, when we are able to clearly discern the difference between who we are and who we are not. Each new occasion presents us with opportunities to practice and perfect the simplicity of our discernment.” Through spiritual clarity, we are enriched and blessed.

Diane Pasta, in “Thrifty and Rich: Quaker Paradox” (FGConnections, Summer 1999), expresses her awareness of satisfaction: “I own a home; I must be rich. Still, I am a frugal Quaker woman. My furniture comes ‘as is.’ My favorite store is a thrift store, and they know me when I go to buy clothes or household items. I mend clothes. … This frugality takes place in my spacious home, agreeably situated in Seattle. When I throw a baby shower, friends have plenty of room to celebrate the new life … and I am profusely rich in community life.” She continues with the refrain, “I own a home; I must be rich,” each time rolling through the balance of living simply and carefully within a sense of abundance, building down to the conclusion: “None of my tangible wealth is permanent in this world, and its immediate (relative) scarcity reminds me of this. It is the intangible wealth that I value the most: the copious community sharing, ample access to knowledge, and plentiful empowerment. I am lavishly, abundantly rich.”

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