Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2013 - Volume 13, No. 10
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It’s been suggested we should spend the first half of our life making our fortune, and then the second half giving it all away. We start with nothing, we end with nothing. But in the meantime we honor the sacred purpose of life as building something of value, then giving it and ourselves away, generously sharing our abundance with the world. Plus, it helps reduce the insidious control money can have on our lives.

That first idea comes from a friend, Michael Meade, a great storyteller and student of world mythology. He even adds, that some be leftover when we die, to be spent on a great funeral - hiring (sharing the wealth with) local musicians, caterers, entertainers, party planners, tent rental folks, wineries, a local woodworker/casketmaker, a creative funeral directer, a photographer, disc jockey, costume maker, gifts and games for the children - whereby the remainder of our wealth goes to support the people of our local community. If we have a lot left - it can be a party that lasts for days. Then when it’s all gone - we’ve finished our life work well!   If there are grown children, they may best be on their own. The needs of young children and a remaining spouse, are of course factored in ahead of time.  

What a wonderful and healthy understanding of the relationship between life and money!

I once had the privilege of attending such a party - celebrating the life of a young father and his daughter, both killed in an automobile accident.  The party lasted all day and well into the night - attended by scores of family and community folks.  It was a tribute to life, and death, and life. (I hadn’t danced that much in a few years!)  

One of the “rules of money” is that it is meant to ebb and flow. It may come from the sweat of our brow. It may come as a gift, or the “found” money of an inheritance or occasional “winning.” But either way, it needs to remain in motion, it is not meant to be hoarded or squandered. For the hoarder or miser, as for the squanderer or spendthrift, it will take its toll by drawing life energy from the individual. Sometimes you can see a ‘sucked dry’ quality to them - even visible under efforts of cosmetic repair.

It is meant to be received and given, given and received. That’s the sacred balance. 

Money and Happiness 

Money is seductive, always wanting to promise us ‘better’ things. This is especially true in a market economy such as capitalism.

We have long lived by the “myth of getting” - that happiness, security and contentment are found in the sum total of one’s material assets and personal accomplishment. The mantra has been “Get all you can, save all you can, and spend the rest.” For a long time within our memory, it seems to have worked. Those ‘left out’ haven’t had sufficient voice to sufficiently disrupt the myth.

But the lesson has long been creeping into our semiconscious awareness. Those who gather riches are not really happy. Just look at them.  When I visit upscale shopping malls, I look closely, and it’s not pleasant what I see. I have heard (again from Michael Meade) that the richest in our nation are also often among the sickest - curiously as much illness as the very poor.  

The happiest and most fulfilled people are those who have learned to give themselves and their resources away.  That may explain why research finds the happiest people are generally those in their second half of life. 

The words of a new Pope

In an impromptu sermon while visiting Sardinia this past September 22, Pope Francis lashed out at the world’s economic system that places more value on making money, but sacrifices by “a hidden euthanasia of neglect that afflicts those the economy considers unproductive.” He speaks the naked truth of those unemployed - “where there is no work, there is no dignity.”  []

The Danger of Money

Here in Michigan we know the silent scourge of under and unemployment - how it (in the words of an unemployed father of three spoken to Francis that Sunday morning) “oppresses you and wears you out to the depths of your soul.” The economy did this - an economy which cared more for profit than for the dignity of a worker. This is where money has become a “god” in Francis’s words - that is, it exists and reproduces for its own sake.  In this he echoes a basic theme of both the Old and New Testaments - that the love of money is the destroyer of the soul. Money so easily takes on this character. It’s no accident that the First (and most important) Commandment is the one against idolatry. 

We’re beginning to see that this new Pope cares more about people than systems - especially systems that care more about money. He even seems to care more about people than Church doctrine! We’ve been waiting a long time to see this kind of leader again on the world stage.  May God protect him. 

When Systems no longer care for the individual

In my own ancient Scots heritage, I learned that when the Clans ruled Scotland, as brutal as they could be - when a widow in need approached the Lord of the Castle, he would care for her, because she was family (clan). That’s what families are for. But in the Middle Ages, when the feudal system took over, the Lord of the Castle often came from far away, possibly from the continent, and probably inherited the castle as a political prize. His fealty was to those higher up the feudal order.  He had no family relationship, or reason to care for those in the surrounding village or countryside - all effective care for the individual or people in need was gone. They were simply property - as was he to those above him. 

In our own country - often “old money” carries with it a sense of responsibility for others. It’s bred in from generations of philanthropy.  But “new money” generally carries no tradition of responsibility - instead it’s only the personal “entitlement” of riches. 

In our own time, the corporation has become the flagship entity that exists only to make money to feed itself and its shareholders. The individual may be employed to ‘feed’ it, but there is no reciprocity of care, nor often even the consideration of a living wage. (Strong parallels to Medieval Europe.) Perhaps the greatest example of this is Sam Walton’s empire. Corporate greed and a virtually unfettered banking industry (“Wall Street”) conspire to use their huge profits to further purchase influence from the government as well as the electorate itself (via powerful media saturation). More frequently of late, I hear the term “oligarchy,” government by a small group of influence. I saw a chart recently that noted within the US population, 1% were millionaires, while in Congress, 50% were millionaires. Now that’s scary!

The damage is great among us. As the data increasingly indicate, the poor are getting poorer, the middle class is getting poorer, and the upper income folks are getting much richer. What can be the outcome of such a broadening income gap? It seems also those ‘running the show’ are shrewdly working to divide those who feel the suffering and despair. It’s the classic “Lets you and him fight” game - dividing the world into competing ideological camps, meant to kill each other off, while the leaders in the background walk off with even more riches and power. Observe closely the manipulations of Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers.


Somehow this cannot sustain. My hope is in the ancient insight that those who worship money, will eventually fall by it - that is, rot from the inside, as seems the case of all who fall into idolatry. In the meantime - we must forego our own temptation to trust in the pursuit of riches, and instead pursue the high care of each other as individuals. Pope Francis sees it right. Money has become an idol, a ‘god.’ But the individual, each and every person, stands sacred among us, and to care, above all else, for each other is our only hope. I offer this, not as a specifically religious law, but a Law of Nature.    

I frequently take hope from these words of Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948) - the great Indian political and spiritual leader of my parents’ generation:

      “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always.” 

Pay attention    


1)   On giving too much:

I do not address in this Newsletter the important consideration of those who often give too much - that is they can ‘drain the well dry’ in a sometimes vain attempt to become themselves receive-worthy.  I see too frequently in my work how this easily takes on a similar addictive quality, in its desperation.

2)   Divergent arguments:

The graphic artist and teacher, Milton Glaser has written: 

“You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.”

In that light, I know that my arguments here of course have their opposites, which may be as valid as my own. So these words of mine, are offered as part of a larger dialogue - the purpose of which is to help each other and together discover the meaning in this world of life lived to the fullest.

Comments (3)

  • yay

    Well spoken, Bill.

    — C. J. B., 10/1/2013
  • Attaboy

    Bill. You communist. Socialist. Whatever. I’m in complete agreement. Except for
    one thing. The Pope gets my admiration – only because he is starting to notice that the church
    ( the Vatican ) has been forgetting the “biblical” message for too long. If he can get
    all the bishops to act like like REAL servants, I’ll give him props. Until then, they’re just as worried
    about accumulating wealth as Mitt Romney.

    — Jim Karjalainen, 10/1/2013
  • Well said!

    I found this post particularly compelling. You have articulated so well what is obvious to many of us and put it into a historical and spiritual context that gives hope for individual and societal redemption. Thanks. Michele

    Michele, 10/2/2013

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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