A Buddhist teaching says that what causes suffering in life is the general pattern of how we relate with others – as in envy toward those above, competitiveness toward those who are equals, and contempt for anyone below us. It is so easy to blame the victims of life. It’s been said that if you want to feel poor, find some rich friends, and if you want to feel rich, find some poor friends. Everything is relative, but one thing is clear: the more we have, the less we appreciate what we have, and the less we have, the more we value what already is or is possible.
Steps 6 and 7 are the steps that directly call us to confront our character defects. There are precious few of us who don’t find envy and jealousy at the top of our lists. As an older woman, I want for little, as I have fewer needs and ambitions, but my current contentment comes from a lifetime of practicing gratitude (though I haven’t always been successful, I admit.). As a younger person, my ambitions often got me in trouble. Our national drive for upward mobility seems seared into our DNA, even though all of the happiness studies document that upward comparisons are particularly corrosive to our sense of well-being. In the place of happiness, we seem willing to live with the pinched feelings of discontent, resentment, and guilt. Buddhism compares envy to a venomous snake.
Step 6 tells us to become willing to have God remove all our character defects, while seven actually asks God to remove them. Spoilers alert. God usually does that by providing us with experiences that teach us patience, generosity, acceptance, and gratitude, for instance.
Jesus speaks to steps 6 and 7 in the parable of the talents. A rich merchant gives money to three employees and sends them out to increase his investments. The one he gave 10 million dollars makes another 10 million for his boss. The one he gave 5 million made another five, but the one he gave 1 million was anxious and afraid to take risks, so he buried his million in the ground.
It’s how we respond to life’s challenges that is important, Jesus seems to be saying. Not all of us are born with the same opportunities, but we all have abilities and opportunities, and there are rewards that bring far more happiness than wealth and fame. What we each have to invest in life is our caring responses to the people around us. Smiles bring forth smiles. Kindness generates kindness; Generosity is contagious. Love begets love. The good we sow in life comes back to us tenfold.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know that is me!