Two friends met in the street. One looked sad and almost on the verge of tears. The other man said, “Hey my friend, how come you look like the whole world has caved in?”
The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me 50-thousand dollars.”
“That’s not bad at all…!”
“Hold on, I’m just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I never knew kicked-the-bucket and left me 95-thousand, tax-free to boot.”
“Well, that’s great! I’d like that.”
“Last week, my grandfather passed away. I inherited almost a million.”
“So why are so glum?”
“This week – nothing!”
Two thousand five hundred years ago – 500 years before the time of Christ – the Buddha observed that most people seek happiness in the wrong way. They devote their energies in the ultimate futile struggle to fulfill cravings.
He further observed that it would be far wiser to devote our mental energies to releasing those cravings. Remember that unhappiness has been described as the gap between what we have and what we crave. If we let go of our cravings by accepting what we have, the gap dissolves, and so too does our unhappiness which was based on that gap.
Much of our emotional and mental pain is rooted in our cravings. The next time you feel emotional pain – whether it be fear, anger, jealousy or anything else – stop what you are doing and look for the craving that underlies it. Simple awareness of the craving can begin to weaken it. Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? And yet there is plenty of research to back up the claim. The problem is that we don’t take the time to notice the underlying craving, to be aware of it, and so it goes on ruling our lives.
It is not that there is anything wrong with wanting things, but when wanting becomes craving (that sense of I can’t be happy without this), and most of us know when we’ve crossed that line, then we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness.
Such is the wisdom of the Buddha. Now skip forward 2500 years to the present day. Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times, has been investigating the work of modern brain research. She notes, “Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed… scientists have discovered that the small brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.” Scientists, with their probes, can actually see the brain’s neurons light up with activity, affirming the 2500 year-old wisdom of the Buddha.
Now we turn to a time in between the two events I have related. We turn to this brief story told in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. There we find Jesus with his disciples sitting in the temple. They appear to be watching the crowd come forward to put their contribution into the treasury.
They see the big donors. But it is a widow with precious little to throw in who grabs Jesus’ eye. He does not approach her, he does not talk to her. He merely observes from a distance.
What is he thinking? What is he noticing?
Do you remember the story of the rich man whom Jesus loved so much he urged him to five all that he had to the poor? This woman has put into practice what Jesus asked the rich man to do. Perhaps Jesus is pondering that.
To be widowed in Jesus’ day was to lose everything. It was the kiss of poverty. Perhaps Jesus is thinking that this woman’s loss has not left her bitter nor robbed her of the ability to be generous.
Perhaps he is thinking that he has found one who has come to the point of realizing that ultimate security does not rest in putting our trust in the things we crave. Interestingly, he says nothing to her. He just notices her. I kind of like that aspect of the story.
What gifts does Jesus see in her? Not just the couple coins she drops in the plate, but all that she brings as a person: compassion, wisdom, persistence, humility, trust, happiness, joy. Jesus is able to see all that because he can see beyond a person’s material well-being to their true personhood. This may well have been one of the times Jesus though, “Wow… I do believe the Kingdom of God really can be a present reality.”
Some of the big donors in line with the widow that day probably got plaques on the wall at some later date bearing their names for all to see.
All this woman got was Jesus’ attention (which she probably wasn’t even aware of) and the joy that comes at the end of all craving. Not a bad trade-off. Amen.