The meaning of rich

I didn’t learn how to play the piano until I was an adult. When Amanda started taking lessons when she was 6 years old, I decided that I would take them with her. I felt it would encourage her, and it was always something I had wanted to do.

Through an interesting series of events, and a stroke of luck, I got introduced to Pauline, who taught lessons out of her house. When I first met her, I knew she was older. Based on her mannerisms, movements, mental acuity, and piano playing ability, I figured she was probably in her later 60’s, maybe early 70’s. It would be a few years of taking lessons from her before I found out she was much closer to 90 than she was 70.

She lived a simple life. Outside of the lovely Steinway that I played during my lessons, her house and the possessions within were simple and unassuming. Her car was nothing special, but it provided a means of transportation that allowed her to get around town. In other words, she had everything she needed to meet her basic necessities.

My lessons were scheduled for 45 minutes, but they would usually last closer to an hour and a half, and sometimes up to two hours. We would get sidetracked on in depth discussions of music theory, or she would start telling stories about her experiences around music. Whether it was about her student experiences at Syracuse University, teaching at the University of North Carolina, playing piano for radio programs in Hollywood, or her music writing, the stories were always interesting. While she may not have had a wealth of money and material possessions, she was rich with experiences and memories.

Every so often, Pauline would host all of her students at her house so we could play for each other. She refused to call these recitals, which they were, but instead referred to them as “workshops”. In addition to each of us playing, Pauline would often play a piece or two herself. She would occasionally have one of her professional two piano partners join us as well. To say Pauline was talented was an understatement. Even in her nineties, Pauline had the dexterity and motor control to play pieces that I could only dream of aspiring to. After we had all played, she would serve up refreshments and cookies that she made, never once could I remember her asking for anything. It was something she did for our enjoyment.

When I started taking lessons with Pauline, wealth was something that I thought was measured in terms of money and possessions. Talking with and watching Pauline showed me that wealth could be measured in other ways. While Pauline’s bank account may not have been overflowing, she lived a life that was rich in memories and experiences. She got to live her whole life around and doing something she loved – music.

Definitions of rich

One of my favorite daily blogs, A Learning a Day, had a great post a while back where he showed two definitions for the word rich:

  1. Having a great deal of money or assets; wealthy. As in ‘these artists are already quite rich,’ and
  2. plentiful, abundant. As in ‘the nation’s rich and diverse wildlife.’

Pauline’s life would fit the second definition. It was plentiful and abundant with experiences, memories, joy, and friends. While I’m sure the first definition mattered to her, it wasn’t what she was focused on, nor did she ever talk about it during our conversations.

It’s a choice that all of us make in life. We can choose to focus on being rich in material things, or we can choose to be rich in spirit. Being rich in spirit means you are focused on building a life based on character, values, memories, and experiences. It is nearly impossible to success focusing on both. If you do not choose which type of rich you want to be, you will most likely end up being poor in both.

Do we own our wealth?

While the material style of wealth is measurable, it is also fleeting, temporary. Material possessions decay. Our money can be devalued or taken away from us. Our stock portfolio can lose its value overnight. As David Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby states in his book Giving it All Away, we don’t own our material wealth, we are merely stewards over the things that God has given us. It is our job to administer our material wealth in ways that make us rich in spirit.

Being rich in spirit means you are focused on the things in your life that cannot be taken away from you. It is things that tend to be more eternal in nature – our character, our beliefs, our reasoned choice, our experiences, our memories. When you focus on being rich in spirit, your priorities are significantly different than when you focus on being rich in possessions, wealth, and material items.

What is your focus?

I’ll confess that when I was younger, my focus was more on the material side of things. We are conditioned in America through our peers, through the media, through society, to believe that life is about accumulating material riches. We want to have more stuff, nicer cars, a bigger house, the latest fashions. But is that really what life is about, or is that just what the big corporations who profit from our money and attention want?

I suppose as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that’s there more to life than the size of my wallet. Reflecting on my time with Pauline, seeing the joy on my Mother’s face when I show up unexpected at her 70th birthday party, making memories with the family, enjoying a good cup of coffee and a well-prepared meal, taking the time to build my character and beliefs – these are the things which have become more important. And surprisingly enough, as I’ve focused more on these items, the material side of the riches equation appears to have taken care of itself. It may be that I don’t need as much, but I feel as though I have plenty, much like I’m sure Pauline felt. In the 10 years I took piano lessons from her, I never once heard her complain or make mention of the need for money.

So the question I ask you as we head into the new year, where will your focus be? What type of wealth are you and will you be focused on building?