An Abundant Life
“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
“Most of us are leading lives of quiet desperation.”
Henry D. Thoreau
“Life sucks and then you die. This world is going to hell in a hand basket.”
“Did you hear the news last night? Another bombing, another suicide, another murder, another….”.
“If it bleeds it leads!”
Every day, every freaking day, I would hear the same disapproval, about the same dismayed outlook and dissatisfaction with his life. And although I may have agreed with him about the nature of the world’s news and how it is presented each day, I was especially disheartened by the lack of meaning and purpose this man expressed. He hated getting out of bed. He hated the work we did together. And dare I say it? He hated his life.
It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college and I needed a job to help pay my way through school. A local contractor needed help doing odd jobs and asked if I would be interested. Needing to save a significant amount of money, I quickly said “yes”, knowing it would be a physically demanding position. What I didn’t realize is how emotionally demanding it would become too.
I can’t remember much from that summer; in fact, I’ve tried to forget most of it. I can’t remember how many trenches I dug, how many asbestos ridden walls I tore down, or the number of bathroom tiles I cut. But what I do remember was what happened one sweltering Thursday morning in the middle of July.
Recognizing the emotional toll that this co-worker was having on my life, I would get up extra early to read, to pray, to mediate, whatever (yoga wasn’t as big back then or I may have given that a try). I tried anything to give me a sense of peace in my heart amidst such pessimism.
I opened a book I was reading at the time, which quoted most of my favorite verses:
“I have come so that you would have life and have it abundantly.”
I remember praying that morning, and almost every other morning for the rest of the summer:
“God, I have no idea what an abundant life looks like for this guy. But I pray that you would work through me to possibly open his eyes to the joy, the hope, the peace you came to offer all of us.”
But every day by about, oh, five minutes after being around the man, my prayer would change to:
“God, I’m about to punch this guy in the face if he has one more negative comment about his life, my life, and the current and future state of the world. If I don’t receive your patience, I may start acting on some of these violent thoughts running through my head….including taking this hammer…and….”
The crazy thing about the contractor is that he was wildly successful by the world’s standards. He built houses for a living – massive, extraordinary, splendid works of art. He built homes where people could “build a home”. He made money and lots of it. Yet, on the inside, he was wretched.
I wish this could be one of those stories about an awe-inspiring conversation I had with the man where his life began to change. But that never happened.
But there was a change. There was a change in me. I can think of several pivotal moments in my life when I learned a vital lesson about myself through someone else. I shared one of those experiences in our first book about a time when I worked with a woman on Wall Street in New York City. I wrote about how she encouraged me to pursue my dreams instead of working some life-sucking job the rest of my life. This was another one of those instances.
That summer I learned, as I am continuing to learn, about an “abundant life”. The “abundant life” isn’t about choirs, and angels, and worldly success. It’s not about fame and fortune, although that would be nice some days. It’s about enjoying the journey. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t hard days or hard seasons where I literally feel as if I’ve been beaten with a hammer.
But the difference for this man was that joy for him seemed almost impossible to find. Even saying, “just enjoy the journey” would have been totally outrageous and probably would have lead him to even more bitterness and pain. He may have been the one grabbing the hammer and…
If there is one thing about that summer I wish had been different it’s this: I wish I had been more intentional about asking him, attentively asking him, “what caused him to be so miserable” (although I probably wouldn’t have phrased it that way). I let his emotional baggage weigh heavily on me each day. I wasn’t able to look at him with anything other than pure anger, and possibly even hate.
I don’t live with regrets. But what if I had been able to look deeply into this man’s life and into his story and genuinely taken an interest in it? What if I had started off every day asking him:
“So, tell me about your relationship with your wife, your kids, your upbringing? Tell me about how you became a contractor and what was it about the job that sparked such an interest in you.”
What if I affirmed him for the amazing abilities he had and how he shared those gifts with the world? What if, every day, I said,
“You know what, I really like the way you created this living room, there is a family who will absolutely love this some day! You know what—that house you built around the corner—that house is one of the best-looking houses on the block. I’m sure the family living there is creating all kinds of wonderful memories together.”
Most of us, actually no – all of us – go through suffering in our lives which causes us to be who we are today. Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one far earlier than she should have passed away? Maybe it was an abusive upbringing that forced you to lose your innocence far sooner than you should have had to? Maybe it was a lack of connection with your father or mother emotionally? Maybe your parents never told you how proud they were of you or that they loved you for who you are? It could be any number of things that made this man become the jaded, conflicted, distraught, frustrated old man he was. There had to be something.
But what if we could look at a person, like I could have looked at this man, and said to myself,
“You know what? I bet he has had a lot of brokenness in his own life. A person just doesn’t become a warped frustrated old man unless he has dealt with some immense pain in his story.”
We don’t help people experience the abundant life by telling them they should be experiencing the abundant life. We show people how to experience the abundant life by modeling an abundant life first. We help others experience the abundant life by taking a genuine interest in them and reminding them that someone else thinks their life is special, that their life is meaningful, that the world wouldn’t be the same without them.
There is a quote we love to share from the Broadway musical Mame, where the play’s namesake pronounces:
“Life is a banquet and most of you poor sons of bitches are starving to death!”
Life is a banquet, an abundant one at that. And yes, sadly, far, far too many people are starving to death. But our response shouldn’t be,
“Let’s tell people that they should be having an abundant life” because if they knew how to be experiencing the abundant life they would be experiencing it, right? Our response should be,
“Tell me about your life. Let’s talk this out together. Let’s see why it is so hard for you to experience the abundant life and what we can do about that—together. And maybe, just maybe, that means doing nothing more than being a listening ear and a good friend to people, especially those people who have been kicked around their whole lives.
Everything about her was big – her height (6’2”), her intellect, her voice, her artistry, her laugh, her life. She simply lived large. She embraced with joy her bigness and her life. She was supremely outgoing. When she entered a room, the very force of personality took over. She had a way of instantly drawing attention to herself, not in a “look at me; I want all the attention” kind of way. But her charisma, inquisitiveness and love of people automatically drew people in. She made instant friends wherever she went, winning them over because of her genuine interest in their stories and lives. She loved to travel and had the ability to connect with people around the world, no matter where, no matter the culture, no matter the language.
She taught drama to children – writing, producing and sometimes taking supporting parts in plays and musicals that starred her students. She would always sing at a party; the blues and Janis Joplin were among her standards. She had her own cabaret act and videos to further showcase her creativity and talent. Her inventiveness and vision exceeded anyone’s we knew.
When she died, far too young, far too suddenly and unexpectedly, from a heart infection, at age 63, one of the brightest, most effervescent lights in our lives was extinguished. Her name was Susan.
Big Sue, to many of her friends.
She was one of my wife Kathy’s older sisters. When Sue’s four sisters traveled to San Francisco to hold her hands and be by her side as she clung to life in the final two weeks of her life and then to care for her belongings and close out her apartment after her passing, they were confronted with a reality that only exacerbated their grief: Sue lived in physical and financial poverty. We all knew that she lived very frugally and was impressively resourceful. Yet none of us fully knew the intensity of the scarcity that she experienced. The exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco and the small income she received as a dramatic arts educator for children, supplemented by a few singing gigs and income from of her play productions, made it extremely difficult for Sue to survive economically. Her very meager living conditions made it a daily financial struggle. While each of her sisters, as well as I, had visited her in San Francisco over the years, none of us saw the depths of her financial struggles as starkly as we did after she was gone.
Yet, she had never complained or allowed her economic circumstances to get in the way of living an abundant life. Her life was about the many and varied friendships that she could foster and the creative gifts that she could share with children and the rest of the world. She was a wealthy woman, indeed. But it wasn’t found in money or investments. It didn’t come through prestige or fame. But it came in the music she loved to play and sing, in the plays she wrote and the children she molded into confident and accomplished performers, in the places she visited and the people she connected with along the way – and kept in generous touch with throughout many decades. It came in her delight in loving her growing number of grand nieces and nephews and in the bond that she maintained with all four of her sisters and their families. It came in her diplomatic and sensitive way of relating to people with whom she differed politically, philosophically and religiously. It came in her unending generosity of heart, in her infectious spirit of joy and in her passionate love of life.
When I picture an abundant life, Sue’s big laugh, voice, talent and life are what I see and will remember. I miss those gifts of hers very much. So few others possess them as wonderfully as she did. I miss her and the abundant life of joy, gratitude and just plain fun that she brought into mine – into all of ours who knew her – through her big, infectious love.
Sue’s abundance was infectious. Being around her rubbed off. It was hard not to laugh, not to rise above everyday frustrations and challenges, not to celebrate life’s wonder and beauty. The simple joys – her love of Christmas lights, her tendency to break out into song for no apparent reason at all, her love of a good beer and her tender tears when holding our day old first granddaughter. When we were with her, we never “starved to death” at the banquet of life. Hers was the kind of wonder that I wish all of us could possess. She shared an eternal beauty that I believe God desires all of us to know. I wish that all of us could live with more of that kind of abundance every day.
Abundance is so much more than having “things”. Abundance is as Epicurus writes:
“Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”