What To You Is Wealth?

A Sermon by Polly Peterson

The King Midas tale has been told for nearly 3,000 years. The story seems to be a cautionary tale about the danger of being too greedy, a warning that loving money too much can harm you and your loved ones. But I doubt it has served that purpose. When people refer to the Midas touch today, it tends to be a positive thing—everything he touches turns to gold! It’s a metaphor for success. People who pin their hopes on striking it rich in lotteries or cryptocurrency investments or tech start-ups, like Midas, are undeterred by the possibility that there might be dire consequences if their wishes come true. We tend to have great faith in the American Dream.

In this election year, there are lots of directions I could go with that thought. But I chose the King Midas story because I see it as a kind of parable of European colonization. From Europeans’ earliest encounters with North America, they were awed by the continent’s abundance and eager to make their fortunes by taking its codfish, its timber, its beaver pelts, and ultimately, the continent itself. That story has been told as the progress of civilization, the birth of a nation. But there are other ways to see it.

Last August, my ecologist daughter and I spent a few days at a retreat lead by Robin Wall Kimmerer—who is both an academic scientist and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. We had read her book Braiding Sweetgrass, and we were eager to spend a few days immersed in ideas that lie at the intersection of modern science and indigenous wisdom.

It was a good way to joggle the mind out of some of the common assumptions, biases, and beliefs that come naturally to us in mainstream America.

Kimmerer points out that in North America, Europeans encountered an indigenous culture with values that differed fundamentally from their colonial dreams of striking it rich. From land grabs to literal gold rushes, European settlers have generally focused on taking whatever they believe to be valuable from the environment. Their Biblical beliefs taught them that they should have dominion over all of nature.

In contrast, indigenous people believed that they themselves were part of nature and that all living things were their kin. They believed in approaching all of nature with respect and gratitude. To them, the earth itself was sacred, as were all beings.

The European view of land as property and the earth’s gifts as resources was alien to the people who had been here for thousands of years. Colonizers admired most the men who turned their takings into great personal wealth. 

But to the indigenous people, taking more from the earth than you need was never admirable. Acquiring great personal wealth to keep for yourself was disgraceful.

The Potawatomi people have traditions that remind them not to be greedy. One is called the minidewak, which means “give from the heart” or simply The Giveaway. Wealth in Potawatomi culture, Kimmerer explains, is measured by the ability to share. The Giveaway is a cultural tradition that redistributes material goods so that everyone has enough. It represents a deep truth that all flourishing on earth is mutual.

The Potawatomi refer to the land with a word that means “that which has been given to us.” Their very language fosters gratitude and a trust in the reciprocity of their relationship to the world. The extractive mindset of western culture is at odds with indigenous ideas of reciprocity—yet the work of Kimmerer and other scientists has shown that the gifts of the natural world actually do “multiply by our care for them and dwindle from our neglect.” Recent studies have shown that the small percentage of lands managed by indigenous peoples throughout the world accounts for the largest share of the earth’s biodiversity. Reciprocity is not just an ethical issue. It is a matter of sustaining life on earth.

In the folklore of the Potawatomi people there is a terrible man-eating monster called the Windigo. The Windigo is voraciously hungry, but the more it eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Its hunger is never satisfied, no matter how many humans it devours. 

Kimmerer points out that our own Windigo nature tricks us into believing that money and belongings can fill our hunger—but of course we are left hungering for more, just as wealthy King Midas remained dissatisfied. Having great wealth just made him greedy for more. According to Kimmerer, corporations today are a new breed of Windigo, devouring the earth’s resources for greed, not for need. What Native peoples once sought to rein in, they unleash.

And Kimmerer believes we are all complicit.

“The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as ‘quality of life’ but eats us from within. … We continue to embrace economic systems that prescribe infinite growth on a finite planet, as if somehow the universe had repealed the laws of thermodynamics on our behalf. We have unleashed a monster.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass”

Karen Armstrong, in her book Sacred Nature, says that, while “we in the modern West tend to rely more on the left hemisphere of the brain, the home of rational and pragmatic thought, tribal people have a right-hemispheric worldview which identifies connections between things.” The right hemisphere is the source of poetry, music, art, and religion. Armstrong illuminates the peculiarity of the Bible’s God who exists elsewhere, in Heaven, not here on Earth, and points out that this belief has set the stage for nature’s exploitation.

Of our current climate crisis, she writes:

“While it is important to cut carbon emissions and heed the warnings of scientists, we need to learn not only how to act differently but also how to think differently about the natural world. We need to recover the veneration of nature that human beings carefully cultivated for millennia …  It is not a question of believing religious doctrines; it is about incorporating into our lives insights and practices that will not only help us to meet today’s serious challenges but change our hearts and minds.”

Karen Armstrong, “Sacred Nature”

The Jewish scholar Ben Zoma asserted 2,000 years ago that real wealth has little to do with material things. The wealthy person, he said, is the person who is happy and grateful for whatever they have, whether it be much or little.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh agrees. 

“Many of us think we need more money, more power, or more status before we can be happy. We lose ourselves in buying and consuming things we don’t really need, putting a strain on ourselves and on the planet.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Like Kimmerer, he believes that science need not be at odds with a spiritual connection to the earth. “Every advance of our scientific understanding deepens our admiration and love for this wondrous planet,” he said. “When we truly see and understand the Earth, love is born in our hearts. We feel connected.”

As UUs, we covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. But only when we’ve truly fallen in love with the Earth will our actions spring from the insight of our interconnectedness. Loving the earth, decentering ourselves, and listening for what the non-human beings have to teach us, may not seem like activism, but without this essential first step, we cannot hope for the change of heart, the altered mindset, the internal values that are essential to this work.

In an old nursery rhyme, “The king was in his counting house, counting out his money, the queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey.”  In America, many of us enjoy material comforts far beyond what even the richest kings and queens could hope for long ago. Our homes are our castles. Our bank accounts and retirement funds are our counting houses. But sometimes our comfortable homes and concerns about money feel like Windigo thinking. Studies indicate that our way of life has led to an epidemic of loneliness. As Dr. Kimmerer suggests, we think that belongings can satisfy our hunger, when it is belonging that we truly crave.

The American Dream has long been predicated on taking, having, and keeping—but it is becoming clear that this way of life not only harms the planet, but fails to foster a healthy society. The centuries-long success of indigenous lifeways on this continent shows us that seeing life through a different lens is indeed possible.   

I am joining Karen Armstrong in suggesting that we learn not only how to act differently, but also how to think differently about the natural world.

I am joining Robin Wall Kimmerer in suggesting that learning from the wisdom of the land and the wisdom of the people who stewarded it for thousands of years gives us new tools to make the world better.

I am joining Thich Nhat Hanh in suggesting that the first step in helping our suffering planet is to love it. 

To heal the world, we’ll need science for sure. But even though science fiction might suggest otherwise, there is no Planet B. Our beautiful, shared world needs all the loving care we can give it.

Our little congregation can’t solve everything, but we each can contribute something. Let’s engage not just our left brain’s power of reason, but also our right brain’s sense of wonder and connection. Ritual and song, drama, poetry, art, and dance, all play a role in building the spirit of caring, mutuality, and generosity that we will need to solve the earth’s climate crisis.

If you believe your wealth lies less in things than in loving relationships, if you care deeply for the earth, if you agree that Windigo thinking leads to discontent, then you have probably been rethinking your relationship to consumption. You are probably looking for ways to help the earth heal. By good fortune, this is the day when our Green Sanctuary Committee has set up a table that you can visit during coffee hour to learn about some actions you can take right now to live in better harmony with our planet.

I’ll end with some lines from the poem “Beginnings” by Denise Levertov:

But we have only begun to love the earth.

We have only begun to imagine the fulness of life.

How could we tire of hope?

—so much is in bud.

—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy, only begun to envision

How it might be to live as siblings with beast and flower.

So much is unfolding.

So much is in bud.

Denise Levertov, “Beginnings”

Click above to watch the recording on this sermon.

Photo by Tevei Renvoyé on Unsplash

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