I have been to Hawaii four times. Every time I go, I fall in love with it a bit more. I think it is the best analog I have to Heaven, and I’m guessing the surfing there is awesome, too.
The last time I went, I spent some time on Maui. We stayed in a little condo near Lahaina that I enjoyed very much when I wasn’t managing the raging symptoms of chemotherapy. So, on our second evening there, while my husband and daughter drove to see the top of Mount Haleakala, I chose to stay with my toddler at the pool, near enough to the bathroom in case of a sickness-related emergency.
The pool area was full of local flavor, and the hot tub was a gathering place for many who had lived on the island their entire lives. One of them, a stocky man with long hair and a wide grin, was not ashamed to tell me that he had been drinking since 9am (it was well after dark), and that he had a lot of opinions that he hoped wouldn’t offend me too much.
“Oh, Auntie,” he said to me, “You like Hawaii cuz you’re rich and you don’t have to live here. When you’re rich, the island is different than when you growin’ up here.”
He swirled the words round in his mouth, a little distasteful, but true.
I admitted he was right. Even though I was bald and skinny, and later that night, so sick that I wanted to die right there on the shower floor of our lovely condo, I was unequivocally rich. And I still am.
For a long time, I didn’t understand this. I was fooled by the world, or myself, that money had something to do with wealth. With value. I should have known better. I look at my own parents. We had very little money growing up, but we always had enough. Enough to eat, enough for a home, enough for the things we needed and a handful of the things that we wanted. And when you’re used to a slim, streamlined life, you realize that you have little to lose. You are able to take risks because the worst that can happen is that you go back to being poor, or rather, having less stuff.
When you have little, you realize that it doesn’t take much to be happy. That rich is about freedom to make decisions and fail.
So many people I have talked with who are older than me mention the “early years” of marriage as some of the best. “That little apartment, those three part-time jobs…We worked hard and clung to each other, and I think they were the happiest times we had.” But why is this a common theme? Because in choosing a simple life, there is so much freedom. Maybe not a freedom to buy, but a freedom of opportunity. Who cares if you lose a crappy job? There are always other crappy jobs. Who cares if you have to move from your terrible house? You can find another terrible house in a place you like better.
So, I sat with the Maui man and those who gathered to hear our conversation. I told them about losing my hair and my sons. I told them about gaining the world and the incredible truth that God is watching and offering us lessons we can learn from, whether we are rich or not. He looked at me and said, “I think maybe you were meant to tell me that.”
And I said, “And I think you were meant to teach me how to say it.”
Such richness grows not from clocked hours or a trust fund. It comes from a mindset where we realize that every moment we live is one of wonder. Each hard thing and adventure, every boring business meeting and debilitating illness, they all are teaching us the unique lessons that we are here to learn. And with ever lesson, we gather jewels. Jewels of knowledge, of love, of joy, of forgiveness, of gratitude. And when we recognize that every experience—good or bad, ones that lead to financial success or absolute ruin—is for our learning and growth, we stop focusing on that outdated concept of wealth. We begin to gather people, stories, lessons, and moments.
I will say one more thing:
I recently talked with a friend who is living in a homeless camp in the Portland area. I shared a meal with her and we talked about. a lot of things that had nothing to do with her living situation. As I helped her jump the chain link fence with the “No Trespassing” sign and drove away, I considered where I was going. I was staying with my cousin just a few miles down the road in one of the loveliest homes I’ve ever seen—green acres, comfortable beds. Even a private hot tub that my Maui friend would loved to have a drink or two in, no doubt.
Yet, I did not consider my cousin or my friend better off. Each of them shared with me their joys. For one it was her stellar cupcake business, Hocus Pocus 2, and a gorgeous garden party. For the other, it was a new pair of socks, the love of a trailer-park dog named “Peanuttiest,” and a few scoops of ice cream. And they both are dealing with hard things. Physical limitations and emotional hurdles, just like every one of us.
They are both rich, living rigorous lives, learning tailored lessons that are making them stronger, happier, and more in touch with themselves and God.
And that is the real difference between being rich and poor. It is simply a matter of recognizing the richness of the life you are already living, not in spite of its difficulties, but because of them.