Money and Memory
Presented November 11th, 2018
In the story this morning (Wilfrid Gordon Mcdonald Partridge by Mem Fox), Wilfrid asks what memory is.
His father gives the easy answer, “something you remember.”
But perhaps Wilfrid is a Unitarian Universalists, because he goes on asking.
He’s told memory is something from long ago.
That memories can make you cry, make you laugh.
Memory keeps you warm.
Memory is as precious as gold.
All these are true answers.
And Wilfrid uses them to help Miss Nancy recover some of her memories. When Wilfrid brings Miss Nancy his grandfather’s medal, she remembers the brother she lost to war.
We all have precious objects that hold memories for us, that tie us back in time to our families and loved ones. I have a little stainless steel mug with a bear etched into it, that was sent from England by one of my grandmothers. The mug was on a shelf in my childhood room, and then stored away in a box. When my son Silas was born, I found the mug with the bear and put it on the shelf in his room, where it sat for many years.
Now when I see that stainless steel mug, I am reminded of my roots in England, my childhood room and my son Silas when he was a child.
Objects have power, holding our memories.
They can remind us of our loved ones, they can remind us of who we once were – when offered the sea shells, Miss Nancy remembers being the little girl who went on a tram to the beach and played in the sand.
Sometimes, when people find out I am a minister, people think they need to assure me how “spiritual” they are by telling me how little they care for material possessions.
This makes it difficult for me to admit how much I like material possessions. I wonder if I am too shallow to be a minister when I get obsessed with having a copper bowl for my dining room.
But I don’t accept that to be a “spiritual” person you must give up the material.
Indeed, as Unitarian Univeralists we affirm that the material and the spiritual are entwined.
That we are mind and body and emotions and spirit, altogether, and that mind, body, emotions and spirit live on this earth.
The material aspects of our lives – our bodies and all that we need to live in these bodies – food, clothing, shelter – matter.
They are acts of creation and are worthy of our attention, of our care.
And when we are in need, they can help us remember who we are.
Miss Nancy remembers her past, not because Wilfrid is a spiritual little boy, but because he brought her objects to hold in her hands, grounding her back into her body.
Precious objects help us to hold our memories and shape our understanding of ourselves.
A small, colourful print of 3 red trunked pines in front of a lake, nicely framed, hangs in my front room. It holds the memory of a 4 month cross country trip Marc, Silas and I took when Silas was 10. We bought it in an art shop in a Washington State harbour town and shipped it back home.
It was a big, extravagant purchase, our first work of art that wasn’t a poster or a photo. We spent the money because I wanted something to hold that time, to hold the memory.
It works. I look at the print and remember not just the day in the harbour town with the seals honking, but the rest of the trip, and Silas as a child.
Money and memory and identity are all intertwined. Our material world is embedded in a money economy. If the spiritual and the material worlds are entwined, then the spiritual and the financial are also connected.
Money and memory and identity.
The biographer of the Duke of Wellington once wrote “I found an old account ledger that showed how the Duke spent his money. It was a far better clue to what he thought was really important than the reading of his letters or speeches.”
It was a far better clue. How we live our lives, what we spend our money on, reveals far more about what we value than anything we can say.
That big trip my family did across the western coast of North America was important to me. We saved for two years for the experience, and it was worth every penny.
We give money to what we cherish, what we want to remember.
Our families and the homes that shelter us. Fashion, hockey games. Video games. It’s a little different for everyone.
At my home, it’s pretty clear I cherish books. And copper bowls.
Our identities and our memories are wrapped up in the stuff we own, which doesn’t make us less spiritual, just more human.
Our spiritual selves are entwined with our material selves. So our identity and memory are shaped by economics as well as family and culture. And in this economy, money matters. It offers status and power.
As Spike Milligan noted, we’d all like the chance to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.
We believe we would be better off, if only we had more cash flow.
And in some ways we all would be, I’d have more copper bowls, and that would make me happy.
But like all truths, it’s complicated.
Money doesn’t actually buy happiness.
A study of lottery winners in Quebec found that 5 out of 6 winners felt they were better off before winning. Several studies repeat these findings noting that the correlation between income and happiness is weak, almost negligible.
People have a natural temperament that readjusts after highs and lows. If you had an optimistic attitude prior to a terrible car accident, that optimism will eventually re- emerge.
And yet, as Edith Wharton said, the only way not to worry about money is to have more than enough of it.
For those on fixed or limited incomes, more money clearly makes life better. Making a living wage is essential. Being able to save for retirement is essential.
If we are stressed about making it to the next pay cheque, or we have to choose between food and heat, or if any unexpected expense throws everything off, more money is absolutely better, it brings peace of mind and choice.
But for those of us who can go out for dinner without thinking about it, more money doesn’t equate to more happiness.
Money is a strange subject in our society, we live in a monied society and are totally dependent on money to survive, yet there are so many taboos against discussing money sensibly.
No one talks about how much they make, although in Europe it is a normal dinner conversation among friends.
Here in Canada, paying attention to money is almost tacky. To say you can’t afford to do something is an awkward social conversation.
This may be part of the dangers of the American Dream, we have been taught to desire financial success so much that no one wants to admit they are nowhere near it.
It’s a reflection that we feel judged by the amount of salaries, so that we believe that our net worth reflects our inherent worth.
But our character is not reflected in our bank balance. Our inherent worth exists beyond our net worth.
Just because the material and the spiritual are entwined, it does not mean material wealth means spiritual wealth.
Money may help us be who we are, but it is who we are that matters.
It does mean that our values are expressed, in part, by how we spend our money.
If we say love is the most important thing in our lives, and provide financial support to the American National Rifle Association, love may not be the most important value to us.
Individual rights and freedoms may be a higher value.
It’s important to talk about money because it is talking about values, identity, fairness – all tricky and difficult things to talk about.
We all have our personal money stories – shaped by our memories of our families of origins and our early experiences in the work force.
But in our polite Canadian society, we don’t talk about our understanding of money. We don’t lift up our stories.
Are we frugal to a fault because of childhood poverty?
Do we spend too much because we feel a short term high from shopping?
Money is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, so much so that while I speak often about us belonging to nature, the planet, the greater whole, we also belong to money.
This is an uncomfortable truth, but we are embedded in great financial forces that most of us barely understand, and even more rarely talk about.
It feels kind of icky, to acknowledge how much we are dependent on money. And how our earning ability is often correlated with the socio-economic status of our families, our ethnicity, our gender, not just our own merits.
Money is caught up in our feelings around worth and privilege. Money, having it or not having it, how much we have, shapes our sense of identity.
As Unitarian Universalists, we know we are healthier and more connected when we can speak freely about taboo topics like money.
So we are going to take time now to consider our memories of money.
What is your happiest memory in connection with money?
What is your unhappiest memory?
What attitude did your parents have?
This Sunday is the kick-off of our Canvass campaign. Each November we ask members and friends to make a financial pledge to this congregation.
Unitarian Universalist congregations are self sustaining. No central body provides support, indeed each congregation contributes yearly to the Canadian Unitarian Council. We support the national organization so that we may connect across the country and speak with one voice both nationally and internationally.
As much as we might wish otherwise, money matters. And how we spend our money reveals what we value, where our commitment lies.
As a collective group, we support the Council, we also support the UU-United Nations office, we support the Mississauga Food Bank, our Burundi brothers and sisters making a new life in Rwanda, we support Syrians making a new home here in Canada. We support affordable housing through Pathway.
These offerings show that we caring for our neighbours, we seek a more equitable world, we value offering shelter to those in need.
These are worthy values. We can be proud of our financial gifts.
And it is being here in this building, this container of memory, that makes those offerings possible.
The gifts we give to this chalice community sustain us so that we may work together on issues that matter. Giving to keep the building maintained and the lights on means we understand the spiritual and the material are entwined.
We are who we are in part because of the beauty of this property.
As we cherish this place, we nurture this community and care for one another.
This is a place where I hope you are creating memories that matter.
Memories of sorrow and laughter.
Memories that keep you warm.
Memories that are as precious as gold.
May this chalice community be a place of meaning and value for those who are here and those who are yet to come.
So Say We All