This I Believe

Jeff - Japan
Entered on January 23, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: hope

I believe in holding on to hope. I am a hoarder by nature. As a fifth-grader I used to mete out my allowance on purchases of sweets which I then promptly squirreled away to a secret treasure box hidden in my bedroom. The candy was not for consumption. From time to time I would merely uncover the box and inventory its contents. Occasionally I ate, but only when a replacement treat was on hand to fill in the gap.

That was in grade school. Since then my miserly tendencies have matured. Today, for example, in my closet I happen to keep my favorite shirt ready to wear. Only it has not been worn in years. I do not wear it because it’s my best shirt. With wear, you see, things get shabby. Many possessions I keep pristine by not using them. For instance, here in Japan where I now live, at the genkan (indoor stoop), I keep my prized shoes (again, the ones I never wear) closed up in a cupboard. I happen to love those shoes along with my favorite unsullied shirt.

Parsimony runs in my family. At about the same time I was hoarding chocolates, I determined that being stingy was a characteristic that flowed naturally through our family blood line where, finding me, it contentedly established residence in my character. Logically then I was not to blame for being tight. Stinginess, I reasoned, was instead something I had inherited from my grandfather. While attempting to explain this truth to him one day, however, he exposed my error and removed any excuse I had been trying store up, as it were.

“You’re the one who gave me my stinginess,” I blamed, confronting him as to my insight. Of course this was many years ago, when my youthful powers of reason were clearly not fully developed.

“I couldn’t have,” he corrected, “I would not have shared it.”

These days I’m still stashing away money. Two weeks before Christmas last year I pedaled over the main post office in Hagi, Japan, asked for as many money orders as my stockpile of savings would buy, and handed over two month’s worth of earnings. This I placed in a small red and white plastic envelope marked as registered mail. The money orders then passed out of my hands, departed Hagi, continued through Osaka, landed in San Francisco and vanished.

My treasure box had been emptied.

Thomas Merton, author of a book I’m currently reading, says, It is impossible to hope for something you already have.1 According to Merton I have become familiar with a kind of poverty. Hope, he observes, is marked by a condition of being without. In other words, to have something is to no longer hope for it. Lately I have a lot to hope for. I do not have those missing paychecks, and I dearly hope they turn up, soon. The hoarder in me needs that money to fill in the gap where it belongs, not just for the sake accrual but also so that my wife and I can come home from Japan in Spring.

In the meantime I find myself living in a kind of suspense, waiting. There is a resolution at hand, but it is not quite within reach. The resolution means we either recover that which was lost or we don’t. Things will either turn out one way or the other, but for now we are left only with interim time.

To wait is to live in a state of lack surrounded by hope. Beneath that lies hidden at bottom an elusive state of contentment. To locate the bedrock of contentment is the deeper function of the waiting. Having the missing money is, of course, one kind of contentment, an assurance. But what can be said about the other form of contentment, the one found in the face of uncertainty or even loss? What can be said about hope? I am finding that contentment which originates from loss is necessarily immaterial, but no less substantial than money. Immaterial contentment is a kind of simplicity much like the vacant space in an empty treasure box. Perhaps, even, the spare simplicity is itself the treasure. I know that treasure is a metaphor for the heart. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also,”2 speak the timeless words of the Bible. Learning to do without material things, after all, can be a kind of freedom. But what is lack to a hoarder?

Lack, I am learning, is a reminder. The gap in my treasure box has allowed me to see my belongings as they are, insubstantial and temporary. By permitting the emptying of my storehouse, I am being given a new gift: a gift I am struggling to receive. I would like to tell you today that I am on my way to becoming more open-handed, unsparing and less stingy as a result of losing some money. I would love to tell you I have gained a new kind of wisdom, a spiritual quality of contentment that comes from doing without material things. I’m not there yet. Part of me still clings to his possessions like the younger version of me in his bedroom inspecting his candy stash.

Looking back on it now many years later, I can see that those candies I hoarded had to decrease—to deteriorate with time—and to ultimately go away. At present I know I have to open my hands and let go. Candy, money, an empty treasure box—it all must fade and eventually disappear. Nevertheless, until it does, I am yet, even now, clinging to what I still do have—hope.

1 Merton, Thomas No Man Is an Island. Barnes & Noble Books. 2003.

2 Matthew 6:21