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“I used to drive a truck for Hostess Bakery,” he said. “I made good money, and I bought a lot of stuff, way more than I needed. I still supported the church and my family, so I thought that was OK.”
“One rainy day, I had bought a $200 pair of boots and some socks at the mall. As I drove away, I saw a homeless guy sitting on the curb looking over his bare feet. In the rain. While I was sitting at the red light, God told me to give my new shoes to the homeless man. I really liked those shoes, and I drove away when the light changed.”
“I got about two blocks and realized, ‘No, I’m a man of God; I have to do what He says.’ I turned around and drove back, but the man was gone. I drove around looking for him. After about ten minutes I saw him walking along. I pulled up and said, “Hey buddy, where’s your shoes?”
He responded in fear. “I didn’t take nothing. I didn’t do anything.” I said, “No, it’s not like that. I just have a pair of shoes that might fit you. What size you wear?”
“He wore size 12, the same as me,” continued Bishop Valentine. “I gave him my brand new boots and he put them on and they fit.
He seemed really happy to have these shoes, but you know what? I felt even happier. The feeling I got from that was so powerful. Since then, I have been a lot less focused on material things. It’s not about possessions. God really doesn’t care about those. It’s about how we treat other people.”
Treating those shoes as if he only had them in trust changed Pastor Valentine’s life and made him a better minister, he says. His church is recovering from the vandalism and building a strong community. He’s become sort of a Christian Sufi.
As with everything Sufis say, there are deeper levels to their saying that all we have, we hold in trust for others. This concept refers to more than material possessions. Our thoughts, our feelings, our abilities, our relationships, even our lives are not ours forever. They are ours in trust; our responsibility is to do the best we can with them before we pass them on.
Recognizing that we don’t own our feelings can be intensely liberating. Feelings come from somewhere. They are a reaction to something, but they are not our property. My usual reaction to the world’s problems is sadness or melancholy. The sadness is real, but it is not mine. Focusing on sadness is just a habit I’ve picked up. Nothing bad will happen to me or anyone else if I put it down for a while.
Philosopher Thomas Moore wrote, “We carry the depression of life in our hearts, thinking the weight must be personal, unaware that it is the world around us that is suffering…The best response might be to respond courageously to the world’s suffering.” Moore’s response would be a positive use of the sad feelings we hold in trust, certainly much better than moping around.
Unless we’re in an isolation cell, we actually can’t help sharing our feelings with others. Our emotions radiate out whether we want them to or not. As Cuban jazz drummer Dafnis Prieto said after a hard day, “Some people bring you misery, because that’s all they have to share.” That’s a good argument for putting misery down and moving on.
The same is true of positive feelings. We all know people who bring us down; we also know people who tend to cheer everyone up. They’re like mobile space heaters walking around radiating good feelings. My son is like that. They’re good people to have around. They help up us notice that our feelings are part of the world, not integral parts of ourselves. We can let them go.
We also cause pain for ourselves and others by thinking our relationships are ours to keep. We know that people change; we change, and relationships that once worked smoothly start to grind and hurt. It’s not usually anyone’s fault, but the relationship has to adjust, end, or cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.
There used to be a bumper sticker, “If you love something, set it free. If it doesn’t return to you, it was never yours.” Actually, no one else is ever ours. They’re here to share our lives for a time. Whether that time is one hour or fifty years, we should make the most of it and return them in good shape.
What’s lovely about not clinging to things is this: when you let go of what you have, you allow new things in. That’s what Rolf Dobelli was saying about the Endowment Effect. We cling to what we have, though there may be much better things waiting for us when we make room for them.
Don’t cling, because new stuff is always coming. Even if I live by myself on a remote hillside, a jail or a monastery, I still receive daily, hourly gifts from the Universe. Without those gifts of warmth, food, and love, I wouldn’t be here. It helps to remember they are not mine. The same is true of my body; it will go back to the Earth one day. I should make the best of it while I can. Enjoy it; love it; take care of it, but don’t cling to it.
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