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Sermon: Money, Stress and Sources of Meaning

Roger Jones, Associate Minister

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Unitarian Universalist Society

Sacramento, California

 Hymns:   #346 in SLT (Come Sing a Song with Me), #21 in Voces del Camino (Ven, Espiritu de Amor), #201 (Glory Glory Hallelujah), #298 (Wake Now, My Senses) both in SLT.

Sermon

            In our culture and society, money and stress…seem to go together.  The topic of money occupies our time and mental energy.  Disagreements about money can divide people in families, congregations, and communities from one another.  Secrets about money can leave us with lasting regrets, can poison or damage relationships.

Spiritual or emotional problems with money can exist whether you make a ton of money or a little, whether you are wealthy and well-situated or struggling under enormous debts.

What amazes me, though, is how many folks I know who don’t let it get them down. Not all, but many of them seem to pursue lives of meaning and purpose, and remain grateful and optimistic, even with financial challenges.

I know a man who is now 40 years old.  After high school, he served a tour in the military.  Then he worked various jobs, learned a new language during overseas travel and moved across the country to live near the mountains of the American West.  He lived simply, renting rooms from friends or sharing an apartment with a girlfriend.  In some years, he received financial help from his parents, and once or twice he moved back across the country to live at home.  After many jobs and schools, he graduated from a good college at age 36.  Unfortunately, just then the Great Recession was revving up and the economy was going down.

After a while he got a job in a business call center, which didn’t pay well and was a miserable environment.  Not a sweatshop, of course, but not enjoyable.  Last year he found a job with a landscaping maintenance company.  There is plenty of overtime work, and on Christmas Day plowing snow earned him double-time pay.  That’s good, as he makes only $12 an hour.  He hopes, before long, to advance to a salaried management job, with benefits.  At age 40 he is married, and he has no health insurance or savings for retirement.  Nor does his wife.  She also works at a low-wage job.

Their economic situation is like that of many people of their generation—those born in the 1970s and 80s.  So are their leisure habits:  local entertainment and restaurants, costly computer and phone technologies, and a modest vacation now and then.   They work very hard, and they enjoy a lively urban life.  He told me:  “I might not ever do another office job.  And I don’t know if I even want one.”

Of course, this couple’s parents worry about their future.  So do I.  Yet they feel blessed.  Are they making the right choices?  Who am I to say?  On the one hand, they are not planning aggressively for needs of their health, possible children, and retirement.  On the other hand, they are making choices about what gives meaning to life from the available options.  They feel blessed.   Given their measures of meaning, life is meaningful.

The experience of meaning is important to all kinds of people, all over the world.  No matter our wealth or poverty, no matter our culture, human beings pursue the experience of meaning.  A Silicon Valley friend of mine wrote a book entitled Making Meaning, along with two of his colleagues.  As business consultants, they work in the field of design strategy—that is, how a firm can design its offerings to appeal to customers, meet their needs, and build customer loyalty.

Using demographic research, the authors conclude that people increasingly seek meaningful experiences when we make our consumer choices.  No longer is convenience, color, a catchy slogan or even “coolness” enough to engage consumers.  People are looking for a sense of connection with sources of meaning in all parts of life, including the realm of consumption.  Companies that connect us to our sources of meaning can make a lot of money.

Their company conducted over 100,000 interviews in different countries to help its clients understand their markets.  The authors list fifteen categories of what people consider   meaningful experiences.     The fifteen categories include most of the common types of meaningful experiences across the countries and cultures of the globe.

Are you curious? These categories appear on the cover of your order of service, so you can take the list home.  Perhaps you can talk about them during coffee hour today, or bring them up for conversation in any small group in which you participate.  Thanks to Julie, the member who offered to design that “word cloud” on the cover.  I assume it was a meaningful experience for you!

I ask you now to stop looking for a moment, and just listen as I read you the list.  See if it makes sense to you as a whole.  Then I’ll quote a definition for each one.  The authors put the list in alphabetical order (as no category is more important than any other). [i]   They are:  accomplishment, beauty, [creativity], community, duty, enlightenment, freedom, harmony, justice, oneness, redemption, security, truth, validation, and wonder.

Here they are again:

Accomplishment—achieving goals and making something of oneself; a sense of satisfaction that can result from productivity, focus, talent, or status.”

Beauty—The appreciation of qualities that give pleasure to the senses or spirit.”

Creation [or creativity]—The sense of having produced something new and original, and in so doing, to have made a lasting contribution.”

Community—A sense of unity with others around us and a general connection with other human beings.”

Duty—The willing application of oneself to a responsibility.”

Enlightenment—Clear understanding through logic or inspiration.”

Freedom—The sense of living without unwanted restraints.”

Harmony—The balanced and pleasing relationship of parts to a whole, whether in nature, society, or an individual.”

Justice—The assurance of equitable and unbiased treatment…a sense of fairness and equality.”

Oneness—A sense of unity with everything around us.”

Redemption—Atonement or deliverance from past failure or decline, … or deliverance from a less desirable condition to a more pleasing” one.

Security—The freedom from worry about loss.”

Truth—A commitment to honesty and integrity.”

Validation—The recognition of oneself as a valued individual, worthy of respect.”

Wonder—Awe in the presence of a creation beyond one’s understanding.”

This book offers advice on how to design and market services and products to appeal to our need for meaningful experiences.   The book’s business message is:  understand the customers—your current or potential ones.  Consider what’s important in their lives.  Consider how they might experience what it is you are offering.  What sense of meaning do they feel?

In the 1960s and 70s there were just a few soft drinks on the market.  The leader was Coca-Cola—just plain old Coke in one or two standard sizes.  Coke’s marketing appeal was the experience of community.  Some people had drunk it all their lives; it had become a friend.  Advertisers turned a popular song about human kinship into a commercial:  “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”  By now, Coke is merely one of many types of soda pop.  There are numerous flavors, containers and serving sizes.  These options are aimed at the experience of freedom of choice.  The authors write that freedom of choice has grown in significance in the consumer field.[ii]  I confess that it’s not so meaningful for me.  I am often overwhelmed by the multiplicity of options out there.

From the crassness of a carbonated beverage, let’s look now at the experience of meaning in an important human endeavor: the rearing of children.

For many people, this activity is filled with meaningful experiences.  Yet, the kind of experience it evokes will depend on your personality, circumstances, background, culture and location.  For example, children can reflect the creative urge—the desire to extend your family through adoption or birth, and to shape a new life.  Or… in many societies, children provide security, a guarantee against isolation, or a source of extra hands to till the fields or staff the family business.   In many traditions, having children is what you do to be a responsible member of society, so it reflects a sense of duty.  It can also give a sense of accomplishment to have reared a child.  Some of us do not have children, but we find meaning in connections to them—in our families, in work and volunteer activities, and here in this congregation.   For many non-parents as well as parents, children can evoke an experience of wonder—a sense of awe at a fragile, growing person, and a sense of unity with a child, with humanity, or with life itself.

The book Making Meaning does not encourage companies to trick people into accepting false experiences of meaning, though some companies try.  A sense of meaning is not something you can force on others.  Nowadays more consumers pursue experiences that resonate with our values and sources of meaning.  To be successful, companies must try to understand such motivations.  Such an approach calls for inventors, designers, and marketers to cultivate empathy for the customer, to imagine the customer’s experience.

To some veteran business people, this may feel too philosophical.  Empathy?  Sounds touchy-feely! Does this have any place in business?

Some religious people, on the other hand also may have an urge to reject this. To link the search for meaning to the pursuit of profit?  How crude, how petty!  People should find meaning on their own.  Nobody needs to sell it to them.

Yet we do pay for meaningful experiences in various ways.

Consider the gifts of culture, the arts. Remember that beauty and creativity are in that list of sources of meaning.  We pay to attend concerts, plays, and wine tastings, and to come to fundraising dinners and concerts here at UUSS.  We pay to visit zoos, nature preserves art museums and aquariums.   Many of us contribute money to support them.  We pay to see movies.  We pay to read books and magazines and buy songs from the Internet.  And companies make money when they make these experiences available to us.  Of course, many songwriters, novelists and poets write without expecting to make much money; they do it for the love of creating.

In a poem by Marge Piercy (“For the young who want to”), an experienced and celebrated writer offers advice on doing the work of writing for its own sake, its own meaning.  She writes:

           

            Talent is what they say

you have after the novel

is published and favorably

reviewed.

Beforehand what

you have is a tedious

delusion, a hobby like knitting.

 

Work is what you have done

after the play is produced

and the audience claps.

Before that friends keep asking

when you are planning to go

out and get a job.[iii]

 

…. [The poem concludes:]

Work is its own cure. You have to

like it better than being loved.

 

While other folks were not paying for this poet’s work back in the early days, she was paying for it.  Her pursuit of the meaning she found in creativity did have a cost.  By devoting her time to writing, she was making a sacrifice.   A sacrifice full of meaning for her.  An investment.

Millions of people enjoy Walt Disney World.  The Disney experience is designed to evoke wonder and awe.  Yosemite National Park also provides an experience of wonder and awe.  So does the Sacramento Zoo. Even a stroll along one of our nearby rivers can evoke wonder and awe.  All of these experiences have a cost involved.  Whether it’s airfare, lodging, parking, food and the price of tickets for Disney World, or the admission charge to the zoo, or just the time you take away from another activity to stroll along the local river, these are expenses; they are investments.  Investments in activities in which we experience meaning.

Some of us buy coffee that’s labeled “fair-trade.”   For us, doing so evokes a sense of justice and fairness for growers and workers in other lands, and the coffee is delicious.  Some fair-trade is brewing for us back in the kitchen right now. Here at church we buy fair-trade coffee for these reasons, and because a portion of what we pay will support projects of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  For me this practice evokes justice and community.  There’s also an aspect of beauty, which is a source of meaning.  That is, when I’ve got caffeine coursing thorough my veins, the world looks beautiful!

Many people in retirement enjoy going on Elderhostel trips.  Elderhostel is now called Road Scholar.  That not- for-profit organization sells cultural and educational travel packages to several thousand destinations a year, with pleasant accommodations, well-planned sightseeing, lectures, and performances.  It’s a success because it has determined the needs and interests of the people it wants to serve.  If any for-profit company provides comparable travel experiences to a similar customer base, it is likely have similar success.  To make money while you offer a meaningful experience is not a bad thing!

Nine years ago I spent several weeks in India. I wasn’t sure what kinds of meaning I was looking for.  I wanted to see what would happen to me.  I did have the meaningful experience of enlightenment—insights about other places and cultures, and about myself.  I also had an experience of accomplishment, because I survived all of the ordeals of that solo journey.  But it took more than my having the proper attitude to get meaning out of the experience, it took money to get me there!

Writing in his journal in 1861, the Massachusetts mystic Henry David Thoreau asks:  “What are the natural features that make a township handsome?  A river, with its waterfalls and meadows, a lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly.  Such things are beautiful [he says]; they have a high use, which dollars and cents never represent.”

Of course, nature is a key source of meaning for us.  Often we think of nature’s bounty as priceless.  Not a commodity, but a free gift of creation.   Thoreau continues:  “If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve those things, [even] though at a considerable expense.”  So, he says, we should spend money on this.  Even an idealist like him admits that money is related to sources of meaning.

We must make choices to experience, protect and preserve what we value, and what gives value to us.  Choosing to value some experiences more than others is an investment.  An investment of our time, attention and money.

Yet in these busy times, too much competes for attention.  So much claims to be a valid pursuit of meaning, so much claims our time and money and attention.  How do we know what to choose, and what to leave aside?

Thoreau famously spent weeks and years thinking about what mattered to him.  Most of us do not have that much time.  But however much time we can carve away to think about how we treat the sources of meaning in our lives, it is time well spent.  If we can settle down, calm ourselves, look inside and look around us, it can be time well spent.

Any sliver of time in a day or a night in which we can contemplate what we care about, and how we choose to make use of our time, attention, and money—that sliver of time can be precious.  Consider it an investment . . .when you take time to think about, write down on paper, or speak to another person about what you appreciate and value, what you aspire to, where you express your sense of meaning.

Let’s look not only inward, but look around.  Let’s notice what we are blessed by, what we appreciate, and what we give to.  Investments in our sense of meaning.

If we are lucky, the ways we spend our time, attention and money are wise investments in meaning. In particular, they ways we handle money can reflect how we pursue meaning.

How we earn or gain money, and the gratitude with which we receive it and own it, and the spirit with which we save it, spend it, and share it can express our sense of meaning.  If we are able to reflect on the use of our time, attention and money, it will be worth it.

May we know when it is worth it.  May we know when we are blessed.  So may it be.  Amen.

 


[i] Making Meaning, p. 32.

[ii] p. 131.

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1 Comment so far
Leave a comment

I really like this, Roger. I think I will keep the fifteen categories of meaningful experiences handy, because it will be helpful in decision making and understanding choices and outcomes.

I too am overwhelmed by the plethora of options in the marketplace these days, especially with products like shampoo where some brands have a dozen different formulas with descriptions about secret ingredients with scientific, unpronounceable names. I just have hair and want a flippin’ shampoo.

I really, really admire your courage in going to India by yourself and would love to hear about your experiences! Having been to many developing countries with a group, I know there are a few places I would be comfortable going back to alone, like Antigua, Guatemala, that I fell in love with, but going to a whole country like India alone? I would love, love, love, to go, but swoon just thinking about going it alone.

Well, I am not trying to write a sermon in response to your sermon, but my final comment is about the people who live in the moment and don’t seem to worry about their future, but others do. I have relatives like that and though they feel blessed, one mis-step and they are up the creek and dependent on others -with their blessings!

Ok, I will put this in my “Roger’s Sermons” file so I can pull it out and re-read it when I step off the path and find myself wondering.

Comment by Lauren Davis-Todd




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