Sermon: Having Enough (text & audio)

It may just be a time-of-life kind of thing, but I’ve been feeling an impulse to shed in recent years. Things I’ve been carrying around for years I take a second look at and think to myself, “Do I really need to keep that?” And more often than not, when I’m really being honest with myself, the answer is, “No.” And so, out it goes.

The turning of the New Year is a great time to do this. Clothes, gadgets, even books: toss, toss, toss. It becomes a spiritual exercise of sorts. I make peace with bits and pieces of my past that I no longer need to hold onto so tightly: fascinations, avocations that seemed so interesting for a time that I realize no longer hold my interest. And that’s OK.

By paring down my possessions I remove distractions and make it easier to focus on what matters in my life. What was it that Henry David Thoreau said was the key to a more peaceful, centered way of living? Simplify, simplify, simplify!

In one way or another, the question that we are asking in the midst of such sorting is, What is enough? It’s a question with deep roots. For it touches existential aspects of our identity. For example, I own a good number of books. And while some mean a great deal to me, many I hold onto because they have utility. In my line of work I am dipping into many sources, and it’s helpful to have them ready to hand. Indeed, part of the professional expenses that you provide me goes toward adding to that collection.

Some of these are valued resources that I’ll keep, but others I’m ready to pass on once I’ve read and made use of them. It’s a discipline for me to think carefully about what I want from each book and why. Am I holding onto that book because I foresee using it, or because somehow I feel it’s the sort of book that “someone like me” should own? Is it some kind of badge of my identity?

It’s easy to get tangled into this kind of knot, and we can do it with all kinds of things, not just books. How often do we look to physical objects as proxies of our identities? Clothes, cars, homes, technologies? There’s a dance we do with the things we own, and for the sake of our own peace of mind we want to be sure that we, not they, are calling the tune.

Because, otherwise there is something unhealthy driving our lives. Rather than true needs, these things feed our appetites – appetites for approval, for status, for pleasure. When pleasure’s in the driver’s seat, singing its siren song, it skews how we relate to the rest of the world, and it makes it hard for us to talk about “enough.”

You recall those experiments from the 1950s when scientists implanted electrodes in the brains of rats that enabled them to stimulate their pleasure centers. The rats would ignore food and keeping pressing the lever to the point of exhaustion. After a holiday season when you may have found yourself pressing that pleasure lever a few more times than was good for you, I thought it might be helpful for us to reflect on some useful ways of thinking about enough.

Now, I’m betting that at this point as you reflect on whatever your own holiday excesses may have been you’ve already been through the drill that anyone raised in this culture learns at an early age: You have spent some time beating yourself up.

“Oh, no! I did it again.” “I was bad; I need to be good.”

The great American guilt trip. We’ve all been there, and we all know a bit about how ineffective it tends to be. So, in the hope of finding a better strategy to grapple with all this, let me invite you to consider a different way of reflecting on this notion of “enough.”

I begin with a big word that you may not have heard before: sophrosyne. How about that? It’s spelled “s-o-p-h,” as in sophomore, “r-o-s-y-n-e.” SoPHROsyne. It is one of the Greek virtues and is a word without a precise translation into English. Essentially, it implies what is called a “healthy-minded” approach to life: balance, moderation.

It is centered on the idea that we can find joy in discovering what is good for ourselves. Pleasure, of course, is part of it, but only part. We can get pleasure, for example, from eating a delicious meal, but part of our enjoyment of that meal comes with ending it when our bodies tell us we are full. The pleasure we get from eating is diminished when we eat to excess. The indigestion, increased weight and all the rest bring our bodies distress.

It’s not a matter of self-denial. We don’t deny ourselves when we end the meal. Rather, we reach a balanced, harmonious place where we feel that we have consumed “enough.” To find that place, though, takes some attention. So, instead of roaring through the meal as fast as we can, when we take our time we recognize the feeling of satisfaction without excess.

From this perspective, there’s nothing especially satisfying about overindulging. There comes a point, for example, as we tuck into that second pint of ice cream that we are no longer feeding our physical need. We are, instead, feeding unhealthy hungers – say, an desiure to draw attention to ourselves, to impress others, to seek their acceptance, or to pacify our own unhappiness or disappointment.

An important dimension of sophrosyne is that it is not a practice of enforced discipline against our wishes. It begins with the assumption that harmonious living is a natural state, what is best for our minds and bodies, how we are naturally inclined.

But it’s not always easy to learn and it can take time. And so the ancient Greeks argued that people adopt an attitude of humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness in going about their lives. We are better able to appreciate others since we are living from a joyful appreciation of who we are. And in time we come to know ourselves as well as those around us more fully.

Our joy, in the end, is bound up with the joy of others and the joy of the community as a whole. Somehow, though, we seem to have the notion marbled into our culture that another person’s joy comes at our expense. We organize our lives to protect our own prerogatives and hold others at bay so we can get while the getting is good.

Wendell Berry’s “Vision” that you heard James read earlier emerged from his experience of many years as a farmer in Kentucky. Berry has long been an advocate for what he calls the “localist” point of view. It comes from the perspective of a farmer who measures the state of the world by the state of the earth. And what troubles Berry is how so much of our current economy has lost touch with the Earth. The kind of factory-level farming that predominates in America, he says, degrades the soil, poisons waterways, endangers wildlife, and promotes patterns of development that are unsustainable. Yet, it is outside the purview of most people, for whom food appears at the table from sources they know nothing about.

This disconnect, he argues, endangers the health of our communities and serves to drive us apart from one another. The corrective he recommends is that we all learn to live, as he puts it, “closer to the ground.” This means not only that we get in closer touch with how and where our food is grown and produced, but that we also get into closer touch with each other.

It is, of course, a challenge in our busy lives, but it is also true that our busyness is part of the problem. We take on work or activities in excess of what we can reasonably achieve and maintain our health and balance.

We organize our lives for efficiency, what the writer Gerald May calls, “the ‘how’ of life,” how we get things done and survive from day to day. But we fail to make room for what May calls the “why” of life. And that, he says, is love, or as he puts it “why we are functioning at all, what we want to be efficient for.”

If it’s true, as Thoreau says, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” it is likely because they have lost track of their “why.” We need to get back to the ground, to be grounded in who we are and the joy of knowing that.

So, when we turn to Wendell Berry’s poem we can see that it is – in essence – a hymn to sophrosyne, to the joy of finding balance and in it a recipe for enough.

The image that he paints of our lives enriching the Earth, rather than depleting it is not, as he says, “a paradisal dream.” It is instead a vision of us living in balance and harmony that is natural to the Earth – to the fields, the rivers, the forests, the mountains. It is a way for us to find closer harmony among ourselves as creatures of this planet in tune with the music that rises from it, which brings with it abundant health and wisdom. So, that we might come to see ourselves in this sleepy backwater of the universe as guests at the district fireman’s ball, dancing to the beat of the local oompah band.

Some years ago there was a poem bouncing around the Internet that made Berry’s point in a different way. It was called, “A Lost Generation,” written by Jonathan Reed. In a YouTube version, a young woman’s voice read:

I am part of a lost generation
And I refuse to believe
I can change the world.
I realize this may be a chock bu
“Happiness comes from within”
Is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy”
So in 30 years I will tell my children
They are not the most important thing in my life.
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
Work is more important than family
I tell you this
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
But this will not be true in my era
This is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
30 years from now I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce
I do not concede that
I will live in the country of my own making
In the future
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this earth.
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope
And all of this will come true unless we choose to reverse it. 

There is hope
It is foolish to presume that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It will be evident that
My pooers and I care about this earth.
No longer can it be said that
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
In the future
I will live in the country of my own making
I do not concede that
30 years from now I will be celebration the 10th anniversary of my divorce
Experts tell me
This is a quick fix society
But this will not be true in my era
Families stayed together once upon a time
I tell you this
Work is more important than family
I have my priorities straight because
My employer will know that
They are not the most important thing in my life
So, in 30 years I will tell my children
“Money will make my happy:”
Is a lie, and
“Happiness comes from within”
I realize this may be a shock but
I can change the world
And I refuse to believe
I am part of a lost generation.

And neither are any of us.

Friends I wish you well in your New Year’s shedding. Along with the clutter, why not toss out a few other outmoded things that may be lying around, like disillusionment, cynicism, pointless guilt, or despair.

Instead, find joy coming to know the good, coming to know your community, coming to know yourself.