Sunday, December 28, 2008

Redefining Wealth

I've become ever so much wiser since I became a grandmother. In the past almost eight years, I've learned so much about how little I know (and "I don't know" is always the start of wisdom), and I've learned to listen carefully to my little ones, because their views of the world always bring something fresh to my life. Sometimes it's just being around them that teaches me something profound.

A few months ago, I was visiting one of the Cohen households in our family, and my three-year-old was having a melt-down. She was looking for her mother, who was busy with her baby brother, and her father was busy with yard work, so she came running to me and scrambled onto my lap. I was only too happy to offer a cuddle and ease her heartbreak (whatever it was at the moment). But as I rocked her, I realized what she'd done. She'd gone from one loving adult to another, and while she couldn't find comfort with her first two tries, she succeeded in try #3. And I realized that true wealth comes with laps. The more laps you can count on to comfort you, the richer you are.

It's long been a truism that money can't buy you happiness. John, Paul, George and Ringo once observed that money can't even buy you love. While those without wealth might echo Tevye's observation that "it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either - so maybe, God, a small fortune?" in truth wealth measured in dollars is an empty wealth. We have only to read the papers (while we still have them) or surf the gossip sites to read about wealthy parents who've given their kids everything but love and stability. Even wealthy people lose loved ones to disease, accident, or violence.

In this bleak economic time, it's become commonplace to consider wealth, since it's become such a rare commodity. Between the 50% downturn in stock value, the failure of so many venerable banking institutions, and the Bernard Madoff disgrace, so much wealth has vanished that we are nearly breathless. Where can we turn?

Those of us who are lucky can find a lap, and if we're even luckier, we have more than one. Now, if you're bigger than a 3-year-old, you might hesitate to leap into someone's lap and start crying on their shoulder. I sure would.

But let's think about what laps are. They're places of comfort. And they're safe. They belong to people who love us unconditionally, who will put aside everything else going on at the moment to comfort us. When we're cold, they're warm places. When we're hungry, they're places where we hear, "Would you like a cookie?"

A truly lucky loved child is one who has a multiplicity of laps. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Family friends they call "aunt" and "uncle." These children aren't spoiled, they're strong, because they feel safe. As I look around the world today, I think that one of the greatest tragedies is that too many children don't have a single lap to crawl into.

And for the rest of us? How lucky are we? How wealthy are we? Perhaps we should start counting the laps in our lives: our spouse? our closest friends? parents? perhaps (if we're very lucky) our grown kids? But here's where we differ from children. We begin collecting laps by offering our own to those we love. We demonstrate our love for those closest to us by saying, "Come, sit by me. I will hear you and I will comfort you and I will not condemn you, and if you're cold, I'll warm you, and if you're hungry - would you like a cookie?" Because unlike material wealth, the wealth of laps grows as we share it.

Charles Schultz of blessed memory wrote a book over 40 years ago called "Happiness is a Warm Puppy." If I had the graphic talent of a Charles Schultz, I would author a new book: "Wealth is a Lot of Laps."

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