Every now and then, something comes along out of the blue, smacks you on the side of the head, and if you’re wise and lucky enough to be paying attention, you’re changed forever. We expect big events like marriage or graduation or the birth of a child to change us. But, for me, it’s often the simplest little incidents or observations that have fundamentally altered my whole outlook on life and led to greater wisdom.
Today, walking along a trail in the high country of Colorado, surrounded by century-old mining structures under the bustling talus slopes of an active gold mine, I turned a corner and happened upon a view that was pure philosophical treasure. A massive, decrepit old mining tower left over as waste after a fortune had been made (and absconded with) was silhouetted against the most stunningly beautiful skyline of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The stark contrast between the horrifically ugly, man-made refuse of treasure-seekers and the unsurpassed beauty of the natural world brought home something that’s been tiptoeing around the back of my mind for years but needed to come dancing out: Oftentimes, it’s the gold left in the ground that brings the greatest riches.
We are a nation of doers, makers, builders. We define ourselves by our occupations and measure our ‘net worth’ by how much money we have in the bank and how many expensive— although often quite useless— objects we claim to possess. We parade our children’s latest trophies, medals, and honor roll certificates as though their glittering accomplishments somehow prove that we are the most sparkling generation of parents ever to walk the Earth. We choose leaders based on who can afford the most garish displays of self aggrandizement and the most brutal take-downs of the other side. Even in our houses of worship, we genuflect to wealth while patting each other on the back for our piety.
But, does all this doing, making, building, accumulating, and worshipping of wealth really make us any richer? Is all this activity focused on wealth accumulation making our world, and the world of our children and grandchildren, a better, safer, kinder, more beautiful and more prosperous place to live? Does the gold we pursue with such focused mania truly enrich our lives or is it just a glittering ball of bling artfully enclosing a heart of coal?
The stark image of the ugliness of man’s pursuit of unbridled wealth compared with the absolute beauty of God’s creation answers with a resounding ‘no.’
It took five decades for me to learn, albeit subconsciously, the value of gold not pursued but simply left in the ground.
There are few meals that can match the delectable taste and tenderness of freshly caught trout cooked over a wood fire in a mountain wilderness. But, there are few feelings so sweet as returning a wild-caught fish to the water and watching it swim away, a brilliant reminder of the unsurpassed glory of freedom.
How many of us have had to cancel a long planned business trip to stay home and care for a sick child only to be renewed by the simple joys of chicken noodle soup and repeated readings of Dr. Seuss?
Does it make sense to constantly buy new clothes when we already have the coziest well-worn sweater and comfiest old pair of faded blue jeans that no money could buy?
Does it make sense to keep working 60-hour weeks to save for a five-star retirement while we neglect diet and exercise and fail to spend time with the ones we love until it’s too late? Or, to earn, earn, earn….consume, consume, consume so much that we can never retire?
As a society, do we really need to be extracting extremely polluting tar sands oil and transporting it thousands of miles to be refined and used to feed our insatiable lust for energy? Wouldn’t it be better to develop renewable energy resources, and leave the tar sands oil in place for future generations who may be better prepared to use it more wisely and with less environmental damage?
Why not leave ‘the gold in the ground’ and enjoy the beauty that is the ground beneath our feet and the clean, beautiful sky above our heads? That’s the path to true riches.