I remember once, when one of my sons was just about ten (I won't say which one). He was over at my apartment complaining about his mom. She had borrowed ten bucks from him from his birthday money and had promised to pay him back by that Saturday. Unfortunately, she hadn't been able to make good on that promise, and he was pissed. "She owes ten dollars!" he angrily shouted. And at the time, this struck me as funny. And I said to him, "Let me get this straight. The woman who gave you life, the woman who provides a roof over your head, food for your belly, the clothes on your back, and most of the toys in your closet...she owes YOU money."
Now don't get me wrong. I understand that money is hard to come by when you're ten. Nobody knows that better than I do. And I do understand that kids have very little they can call their own. Still, it sort of seemed funny (but normal) to me for him to be so angry. Because the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that if it weren't for her he wouldn't have anything at all. I mean, even if she were NEVER able to pay him back his ten bucks, he was way ahead on the deal. Of course, as parents, we never think of our kids as owing us anything. And this event started me thinking about what we owe our children and what, if anything, our children owe us.
We all have this compelling sexual drive. We are hardwired to reproduce. And we do. Boy, how we reproduce. The earth nearly cannot stand the amount that we reproduce. There are times I have this feeling that the earth really is a living thing (much as the native American Indians do) and from time to time needs to shake a few of us off with the odd tsunami, earthquake, flood, plague, hurricane, or tornado. Perhaps even war is some strange way of keeping the population of humankind in check. So we reproduce.
We bring these children into the world and you have to wonder why. Of course, sometimes it is by pure accident. That doesn't mean those kids are any less loved. They just weren't planned. Some of the best things in life aren't planned. But a large number of children are planned. There are large numbers of parents who so want to have children. Some are even taking fertility drugs to ensure pregnancy. And I have to wonder why, just a little. I mean, there's no logical, rational reason for children, other than perpetuating the species. Every purpose they serve, from a purely logical point of view, is purely artificial.
They perpetuate the family name and the race. But why should that matter? Let's face it. When you're dead, you’re out of the story, except as a memory. Why should you care if the family goes on any more than you might care whether they get a new photocopier at work after you're gone? You would think we would have the same attitude towards children that Republicans have about the environment. It doesn't matter what happens to the earth after you're gone, as long as you make enough money while you're alive. But we don't.
Anyone who has had to live with a teenager knows you don't have kids so you'll have someone to love you. Most of them barely tolerate their parents. Once upon a time, children helped with the family farm and helped contribute to the family economy by working. But nowadays, they are just a drain of family finances and continue to be sometimes until they are thirty or forty. Is it that we are so desperate for someone to love? There are plenty of people around who need love. And if you feel the need for companionship, a dog or cat will do you better. Kids leave about as soon as they can get out of the house. But we have these children anyway. So what do we owe them? And what do they owe us?
It's an absolute fact as far as we know, that none of them asked to be born, as they so often tell us when they are pissed at us. But here they are. And all you have to do is check out a frat party, or any bar on a Saturday night, and you will see that they enjoy being here. Go to Disneyland sometime and look at the faces of the children there and you will see that they enjoy being alive very much. And think of all the magic you felt the first time you experienced so many different things in life. Remember your first crush? Remember the first time you experienced making love with someone you really loved? Remember your first taste of hot chocolate on a cold winter day? Life is a good thing. They may not have asked to be here, but they have reaped the benefits of having life.
Certainly when children are young we, as parents, have a responsibility to give them food and shelter, and to give them the knowledge, the tools, the make a good life for themselves. It's true. They didn't ask to be here, so we should at least enable them to do the best they can. But once we've given them that, do we owe them anything? Do they owe us anything for this gift of life they enjoy so thoroughly?
Let's be real. Children own nothing. They would have nothing were it not for their parents. Everything they have belongs to us. We give them their clothing. We give them their furniture. We give them their books and toys. Even the things they buy themselves, they buy with the money the grownups give them. Very few children earn their own money. And we are mighty quick to take their stuff away, too, when they displease us. The parents giveth and they taketh away, man. So do they owe us anything?
Well, do you ever really owe anything to someone you love? I don't do things for my wife because I owe her anything. I do things for her because I love her. When I think of the people I owe, like the bank, or the IRS, I know these are not people I love, at least not in the same way I love my children, or my wife. With banks, with governments, and with our employers, we have contracts. We do something for them, and they do something for us. We owe each other. There is no contract with the people (or animals) we love. We just love them, that's all. We don't owe each other anything. To owe each other would mean that we give our love out of obligation, and that is not love. That is duty.
It has been a rule of mine for years and years that I will never loan anything, at least, not in my mind. I will only give it. If someone asks me for a loan of money or something I own, if I can afford it, I will let them have it. That way, if I get it back, I'm happy. But if I don't, I am not hurt. I let it go when I loaned it out. I have seen too many relationships ruined over something borrowed and never returned. And that is not what love is about. But there is something we owe each other. And that is gratitude. We need to be grateful to each other for the love they give us and the thoughtfulness they show. People do little kindnesses for us every day. Maybe they are just very little kindnesses, but they make our days better. Somebody sends you a joke over email to give you a chuckle. Some stranger holds a door for you. Somebody lets you out into traffic. So we do owe our parents our gratitude. Every time we check out an amazingly beautiful sunset, or a starry sky, we should think, "Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. This is pretty cool."
But this is not about our children, or what we may owe them, or what they may owe us. It is, as always on Sundays, about our spirituality. It has to do with our relationship with the divine force, the spirit, the Atman, the Tao. Last week I told you about how Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. One wall of that temple still remains there. It is the wall known as the "Wailing Wall", and devout orthodox Jews pray there constantly, placing prayers in the cracks of the stones. The Scribes had all been trying to trick Jesus into saying something incriminating that would allow them to arrest him and get him off the streets away from the people. Jesus finally shut them up with his pronouncement on those two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor. Well, then Jesus turned to the people and pointed to the Scribes and he said, "Watch out for those assholes, the Scribes. They like to wear those long, fancy robes, and they sit at the place of honor. People greet them wherever they go. The say long, drawn out prayers. They'll get theirs, someday." Note this portion of the Gospel According to Mark:
“He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, ‘Truthfully, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.’" (Mark, Chapter 12)
He sat down opposite the temple treasury and pointed at the wealthy Jews putting large amounts of money in the box there. Then he pointed at this old widow lady who walked into the temple, walked up to the box, and put in two mites (the smallest coin possible). He called his buddies over and said, "Look at her. All these other rich bastards put in a lot of money. But I'm telling you SHE has put in more than any of them, because they put in the money they had left over, but SHE put in all she had." This is one of those stories that certain evangelists love to quote because the use it to try and get the desperately poor people who watch their TV shows to send them money to pay for their brand new Mercedes out of their incredible poverty. But I think those guys miss the point, perhaps on purpose, but still, they miss the point.
You see, those Scribes had a contract with God. They gave out of obligation. They felt like they owed God that money, and those prayers. And they got something back for their payments, too. They got the respect and admiration of the crowds, the great unwashed. They received the seat of honor at the banquet. They get those greetings in the streets. Everybody knew them and respected them. And they felt God owed them that much. But that old widow, she had nothing.
In truth, you could say she didn't have a good reason to be grateful. Remember, there was no widow's pension in those days. There was no inheritance. Anything that belonged to the dead husband went to the surviving MALE relatives. The wives got nothing. This woman did not give out of a sense of obligation. She gave that money out of love, and she gave all she had. She understood something; you give all you have to the ones you love. That is what love is all about. She had faith. She had faith in the existence of this being, this spirit, this divine something. She had enough faith to love and to give all she had. She gave it all to God. You don't give to God because you are obligated; you give to God out of love. Just as children will, from time to time, take money from their meager resources, and buy a gift for their parents, not out of obligation, but out of love.
And sometimes I've wondered. What does God want from me? And I remember what Jesus said about what God wanted. Gods wants me to love God (whatever you want to call that or think about that) and to love my neighbors. And who is my neighbor? Jesus says that's everybody, even my worst enemy. And who is God? Jesus says that God is there present in everybody. He says whatever we do to the least of those we meet, we do to him. So I look at the people everywhere around me, the people I meet, and the people in Darfur, and even the people in Washington D.C, and I have to see God. And so, to love God, I have to love them. And that means loving myself also, because I am God, too. This is what the Buddha said also. We are one. And as I said, we don't owe the people we love anything. We do things for them because we love them.
According to the old story, God asked Abraham to give up his only son, Isaac. And when Abraham was willing to let him go, and once God saw that, he gave him his son back, and made him patriarch of a great people. Whether the story is true or not, it still means the same thing. Jesus said to cast our bread upon the waters and it will come back to us tenfold. It's funny, the more you give of yourself, the more you get back, maybe not in money, but in satisfaction and contentment. And so I guess that answers my question. What does God want from me? Only everything.