Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Cat Naps and the Poverty of More

Peace maketh plenty;
Plenty maketh pride;
Pride maketh plea;
Plea maketh povert;
Povert maketh peace.

~ Anonymous (circa 15th century)

As I write, two tortoise shell cats curl on the bed by my knees. They have no sense of want. They sleep, they eat, they have occasional cat frenzies at midnight. Life is simple for them. Some days I wish to be one of their kind.

The cyclical and seasonal nature of life is always with us. Cats seem to grasp this intuitively. The words of this anonymous Brit testify to it, and I have to agree.  However, while peace can provide a place for plenty, I confess that I do not always take advantage of it. In fact, I tend to rapid cycle on to pride, which leads to a feeling that I deserve more (the “plea” part), which drives me into a deeper more grinding poverty of the soul. 

I stop to consider now the number of times I have felt that I have earned all that I have. On the surface, I certainly have earned it. I have studied hard and worked hard and made the necessary sacrifices to attain a certain measure of achievement and comfort for myself and my family. But all that I have earned has been made possible by the efforts of those who have gone before, and by the collaborative efforts of those working in concert with me, and first and foremost by the grace and gifts of a giving God.

That is what I believe in my core.  Yet how easily I forget and move to pride and then plea.  As soon as I am in a position of “Give me more” I am poor. It is as simple as that.

But I get to the last line from Anonymous and stumble.  The idea that poverty in itself provides the conditions for peace to me seems highly na├»ve, uninformed, and even patronizing.  Maybe in those old days before running water and central heating and democratic capitalism, sure, I could see how one might need to get philosophical about such things.  But do you seriously expect me to buy into the notion that not being able to feed your family will give you inner peace?

Sudden slap on the back of my head – that was my better, smarter self saying, “You know better.” This poem is not talking of material poverty, not really, not just that.

So how is it that “povert maketh peace?”  I’m still working on that. I admit peace can be elusive as I worry about paying the bills or making deadlines or ensuring a perfect life for my perfect child.  I think maybe the poverty that leads to peace is the sort that has poured itself out and is no longer striving. It is a spiritual state of having nothing left to lose. It is the emptiness that says, “I am poor in spirit and deserve nothing” rather than “I have earned it by rights, give me more.”

It may be the secret of being content in plenty or in want that the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Philippians.  If I could write a letter back to Paul, I’d ask him to tell me more about that secret.  

Or maybe I’ll just have a chat with my cats.

The Oxford Book of Short Poems, Chosen and Edited by P.J. Kavanagh and James Michie (Oxford University Press, 1987)


  1. Hi Kelly,
    Sometimes I think about this quote from "Fight Club" that goes: "It is only when we have lost everything that we are free to do anything." Now, I know in context of the film it's totally different, but I think about it in terms of losing fear, losing worry about material concerns, losing the "extras" that weigh us down. When you give up, let go of "stuff" (emotional burdens or physical possessions that can tie you down), you start at ground zero and can go anywhere. Maybe that's what "anonymous" is getting at...

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Sarah. Great insight and very appropriate quote from Fight Club. The other aspect of this "povert maketh peace... maketh plenty" cycle that you reminded me of is Steven Johnson's assertion that scarcity leads to innovation. That sort of skips over the peace part, but from a cyclical perspective, it makes sense. :-)

  2. What if "poverty" in this sense is really about simplicity, or the more appropriately, the act of simplifying? Making room by letting things go? For those who are committed to radical simplicity (not me, though I admire it!), there is a belief that the more you let go, the more abundance you have. Or maybe it is the more you are willing to let go, the more you appreciate and recognize abundance.

    1. Good to meet you Dona, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think you're on to something. There is something about decluttering that allows for a greater appreciation of the one or few things that remain, an understanding of the real value of those priceless few.