Elusive Abundance

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“Which secret garden will you tend today?”[1] asks the Rev. Kathleen McTigue. The garden of dissatisfaction or the garden of abundance? I’m gonna guess no one here this morning will say, “I prefer to tend the garden of dissatisfaction. That’s me at my best.” Or, “I prefer whining and complaining.” Or, “I love that feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, of being overwhelmed, of always rushing, always reacting, always feeling like everything is urgent and there’s never enough time. Please give me more of that!” I’m guessing—I could be wrong—none of you prefers to tend the garden of dissatisfaction.

Angry Gardener

We prefer not to, but most of us do tend it. This is Rev. McTigue’s point and I agree: “We return again and again to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.”[2] There are often good reasons for this. Sometimes we are dissatisfied and complaining is our best and only option. And there are days when we really don’t want to get out of bed because our burdens feel too heavy to bear. But when sitting in worship and the minister asks if you’ll tend the garden of dissatisfaction or abundance,I’m gonna guess you’d prefer abundance. “This garden,” says Rev. McTigue, “grows easily, it blossoms freely, and its richness awaits us each time we open our[selves to it]: life, breath, kindness, friends, love…. All the bounty given to us by every unfolding day.”[3]

autumn harvest

Our ministry theme for October is abundance. September is here for a few more days, but autumn has arrived. The final harvest has begun. Farm stands are full of the bounty of the land—pumpkins, applies, pears, corn, squash and all manner of pies. The sights and smells of earthly abundance are all around us. So I’m ready for this theme. I hope you are too.

I want to begin by exposing and hopefully dispensing with a myth about how one achieves abundance. You may have noticed this: conversations about abundance can easily degenerate into a feel-good cliché that completely ignores reality. The cliché is the often enthusiastically stated claim that all it takes to have abundance in your life is a slight shift in attitude. Rev. McTigue is the last Unitarian Universalist minister I would ever accuse of resorting to cliché, yet it sneaks even into her deeply insightful words. She writes: “There’s another garden growing right along-side [the garden of dissatisfaction], and just a small shift in perspective tumbles us into its grace.”[4]

abundance

Friends, I want desperately for this to be true. I want the garden of abundance to be that close. I want tumbling into its grace to be that easy. Just a snap of the fingers, a turn of the head, an unanticipated moment of peace and wallah! Life, breath, kindness, friends, love, financial health—abundance. I want this for everyone. But in my experience, the people who can get to the garden of abundance with only a slight shift in attitude are people who already live there, but just forgot. They already experience abundance in their lives, but something draws them into the garden of dissatisfaction. It could be something petty, or it could be something serious like the death of a loved-one, a difficult diagnosis or the break-up of a marriage. So they tend the garden of dissatisfaction for a little while until they remember what they already know. Oh yeah, what am I complaining about? I have what I need to sustain me. I have a good life.

But for people who don’t experience abundance in their lives, the suggestion that having abundance only requires a slight shift in attitude is, more often than not, a set-up for failure. It’s rarely that easy. Two weeks ago I spoke about what gets in the way of personal transformation. I named a dense constellation of deep-seeded thoughts behaviors, habits, addictions, long-standing physical and emotional attachments, relationships, commitments, loyalties, assumptions, financial arrangements, family dynamics, children’s needs and much more that has brought us to where we are, makes us who we are, and holds us firmly in place. It doesn’t just change because we want it to. It doesn’t just change because we recognize the garden of abundance is right next door. A shift in attitude may be a good start, but it’s rarely enough. So I don’t hear just change your attitude as sage advice, as wisdom. I hear it as a cliché.

And it’s dangerous cliché, a potentially spirit-killing cliché. It can become a convenient excuse for why scarcity persists in a person’s life. They didn’t do it right! They didn’t shift their attitude correctly. We can blame their lack of abundance on a character flaw, on the fact that they didn’t want their lives to change enough. It’s a form of blaming the victim. And if we think it’s their fault, then there’s no obligation for us to ask about the often very legitimate reasons why they’re living with dissatisfaction. Let’s say a person experiences scarcity in their life because they live with a mental illness. (We know not all people with mental illness experience scarcity, but let’s say this person does.) They can change their attitude all they want, but so often the problem is bigger than their attitude. One reason a person with mental illness might lack abundance is not because of their attitude toward themselves, but because of society’s negative attitude toward people with mental illness. One reason a poor person might lack abundance is not their attitude towards themselves, but society’s negative attitude toward poor people.

Ignoring Poor People

My point is this: it has become a cliché to suggest that one’s attitude makes the difference between scarcity and abundance. While I agree one’s attitude is crucial to living a fulfilling and meaningful life, it is also true that scarcity results from larger social, economic and spiritual realities over which individuals have little control. Scarcity is rarely a purely individual problem. And it stands to reason that abundance is a social phenomenon. We secure the blessings of life—we get our needs met and more—when our communities thrive. We’re not in this alone. So, the advice to an individual to simply change of their attitude is often a set-up for failure.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

You know who I blame for the prevalence of this cliché? Oprah Winfrey. She’s famous and successful—at least in part—for repeating this cliché over and over again. A salient example: in 2006 she dedicated two shows to an exploration of The Secret, the best-selling book from Australian filmmaker and self-help guru Rhonda Byrne. An Oprah.com article from 2006 says, “Rhonda [Byrne] defines The Secret as the law of attraction … the principle that ‘like attracts like.’” According to Byrne, “We attract into our lives the things we want … based on what we’re thinking and feeling” [5] If we’re experiencing scarcity, it’s because we’ve been thinking about scarcity. If we want abundance, we just have to change our thoughts and feelings.

Oprah is convinced Steven Spielberg invited her to play the role of Sofia in “The Color Purple” because she really wanted the role and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She didn’t tell anyone she wanted the role. She didn’t know Spielberg. But her thoughts led Spielberg to her.[6] In a 2013 book, The Secret: Daily Teachings, Byrne says, “Whatever feelings you have within you are attracting your tomorrow. Worry attracts more worry. Anxiety attracts more anxiety…. Joy attracts more joy. Happiness attracts more happiness….Your job is an inside one. To change your world, all you need to do is change how you feel inside. How easy is that?[7]

Rhonda Byrne

Rhonda Byrne

I haven’t read the entire book, but I’ve read a lot about it and I’ve spoken with people who are absolutely convinced the law of attraction is real and that you can attract money, work, happiness, romance, power—anything you desire—to you simply by thinking about it and—this is important—by not thinking about its opposite: poverty, unemployment, sadness, loneliness, weakness, etc. I just read a story on The Secret website from a devotee whose dog was diagnosed by two different vets with a massive tumor on her liver. This person tells her dog over and over again that she is healed and intentionally never mentions the words sick, cancer, tumor, etc. After four months they return to the vet who, in utter disbelief, tells them the tumor has disappeared.[8]

There are many commentators and critics who debunk the pseudo-science behind concepts like the law of attraction, or who challenge the therapeutic efficacy and even the ethics of counseling people facing serious crises to simply change their thoughts and feelings, or who expose the enormous profits to be gained from selling easy answers to people in distress. One of the best critiques of The Secret and other publishing successes in this genre is Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.[9] I won’t say more about it here, except to point out that there are serious, well-researched efforts to expose the short-sightedness as well as the insidiousness of this cliché.

Watch Jon Stewart’s interview with Barbara Ehrenreich here.

But I’m not mocking. I believe the person with the sick dog used the technique she learned from The Secret with complete faith that it would work. For all I know it did. For all I know Oprah’s thoughts attracted Spielberg’s attention. Who am I to say otherwise? But I’m also familiar with the proverbial aspiring actress who never gets a call-back despite how utterly dedicated she is to her craft and how much she thinks about succeeding. Did she not want it enough? And I am worried about the thousands of people who will read the story about a dog’s miraculous remission and who, as a result, will put their faith in the power of a positive attitude to heal their own dog, or their cat, or their own body, or their spouse’s body, or their child’s body, or their parent’s body. They will bring all manner of positive thoughts and feelings to bear; they will avoid all manner of negative words and images; and it won’t work. In fifteen years of ministry I’ve watched far too many loving, hopeful, prayerful, positive people yearn for a loved-one to survive a life-threatening illness and the person still dies. Were these family members not positive enough? Not hopeful enough? Not loving enough? Did they pray the wrong prayers? Did they allow negativity to creep into their thoughts and feelings? Were they tending the wrong garden while their loved-one lay dying? If so, are they responsible for the death? Of course not.

What impresses me about a phenomenon like the Oprah Winfrey Show, which peddled the just change your attitude cliché to tens of millions of viewers for years, and what impresses me about a phenomenon like The Secret, which has sold tens of millions of copies in forty languages across the globe, is not those occasional moments where the law of attraction appears to actually work. What impresses me is that so many millions of people are so hungry for a way out of dissatisfaction. So many people are searching desperately for a different life. So many people feel mired in material and spiritual scarcity. So many people are longing for some inkling of abundance in their lives. Winfrey and Byrne and many others have offered a response to this longing. It begs the question: what do we offer to people longing for abundance? What do each of you offer, what does your minister offer, what does you congregational offer, what does Unitarian Universalism offer, what does liberal religion offer to people who are crying out for some measure of abundance in their lives?

Earlier we sang “Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity…. Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea; all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”[10] This hymn calls to mind an idyllic, if mythological human past, a time of abundance in which every human need was met; a time from which we have grown distant. The hymn invites us to learn what we must learn in order to regain that abundance. “Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power, how to touch the earth with reverence. Then once more will Eden flower,” a references to the Biblical Garden of Eden. I also read earlier from Genesis where God, in Eden, reminds all creatures, “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”[11] Again, an image of abundance at the dawn of humanity.

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

I think the spiritual lesson we draw from these kinds of images—whether we find them in ancient scripture, a modern hymn, or a minister’s reference to New England farm-stands overflowing with the earth’s bounty—is that the earth can and will provide everything we need. In more traditional religious contexts we hear, “The Lord will provide.” We’re aware, though, that we’re out of balance, that many people don’t have access to the earth’s bounty—healthy food, clean air, drinkable water, shelter. And many people don’t have access to decent education, health care, work that pays a living wage and on and on. This is why so many people long for abundance and are so drawn to easy answers like just change your attitude which doesn’t address the real roots of scarcity.But “earth was given as a garden” may not be any better. It’s a myth. And given how many people live on the planet today; given what we know about water and food crises, health care costs, climate change, and the damage wrought by production and use of non-renewable energy, I think it’s a fair question whether the earth has the capacity to provide for everyone. That capacity seems stretched to the breaking point in our time.

Pollution

Nevertheless, this spiritual vision of a return to Eden, of achieving some level of abundance for all humanity, is part of our spiritual heritage. I think it’s essential that we hold onto it, that we adapt it to present-day realities, that we preach it, teach it, pray it, write it, sing it, dance it, post it, blog it, tweet it. We—people of faith, people of conscience, people who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person—need to keep this vision of abundance for all people alive in the world because there are competing visions at work, visions organized around the principles of domination, exploitation, control and unbridled profit. Without a vision of abundance for all people, justice, fairness and equality erode and access to the fruits of the earth remain elusive for many. Vision matters. If we want abundance, we need vision. So, I’ll leave you with this question to ponder for next Sunday: if there are no quick fix, easy answers to the various forms scarcity takes, if just change your attitude is an insufficient though highly seductive response to scarcity, then what is the work—what is the difficult, roll-up-our sleeves work—that will bring that vision of Eden to fruition?

coming back

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Tending the Secret Garden,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 66.

[2] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[3] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[4] McTigue, “Tending the Secret Garden, p. 66.

[6] Watch Oprah Winfrey talking to Larry King about the way she experienced the Secret in her own life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYFIN6Csr0k.

[7] Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret Daily Teachings (New York: Atria Books, 2013) Day 3. See http://thesecret.tv/thesecretdailyteachings/

[8] The story, “Huge Tumor Gone,” is at http://thesecret.tv/stories/stories-read.html?id=17592.

[9] Ehrenreich, Barbara, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). For excerpts and interviews, see http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/brightsided.htm.

[10][10] Bard, Roberta, “Earth Was Given as a Garden” Singing the Living Tradition  (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #207.

[11] Genesis 1: 29.