Keeping up with the Joneses

by Catherine Sproat

The month of July was a month of personal lessons on different levels. The biggest and most important lesson was about Gratitude - learning to be grateful for everything I have and even for the things I’ve lost.

It started during the first week of July. While driving to work one morning, I was stopped at a red light and noticed a man with a dog standing on the corner. I’ve seen the man and dog many times before. They are regulars on that corner, panhandling. Many people pass by pretending not to see them, others slowly drive by and hand over money or things for the dog.

For some reason, that man and dog kept sneaking into my mind the rest of the morning. After work, I went grocery shopping and bought an extra bag of dog food, dog treats and some bottled water. Once home, I found a container that could be used as a water bowl and I set out again to see if they were still on the corner. Before I left I contacted a friend who works near that corner to see if she thought I should be doing what I was going to do. My friend said she knew of the man and his dog and she thought he’d be very grateful for my kindness, so I went. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there when I got there, but the next morning he was.

I parked my car, took the bag holding the stuff for the dog out of my trunk and walked over to where the man and the dog stood. The man was very friendly, saying “Good Morning” to me as I approached him. After we exchanged greetings, we introduced ourselves and I gave the man the bag. A smile came across his face and he thanked me more than once as he opened the dog treats. He passed me a treat and said that I had to be the one to give it to his dog. I was a little hesitant but held out the treat. The dog slowly came toward me and gently took the treat from my hand.

As I stood there for the next ten minutes, the man gave me a brief summary of his life and why he was on the corner taking handouts. It’s a story that I’m sure is shared by many others in his position. One thing that stood out was the love he had for his dog and for the dogs he had before this one. He said, with some tears in his eyes, one of his only regrets was not having a picture of his former dog. I always carry a camera with me so I asked him if it was okay to take a picture of his dog. The man was delighted and allowed me to take several pictures of his dog and even suggested poses. When I was done, he asked if there was a chance that I could give him one of the photos of his dog. Of course, I said “yes.”

I left there and headed straight to a store with photo kiosks to print the pictures. There were five photos in all. As they printed, I noticed a small frame for a few dollars. I purchased the frame and once the photos were processed, put the one I liked best into the frame and the other four photos into an envelope. I drove back to the area where the man was, pulled over to the side of the road and handed him the frame and envelope. The look of gratitude in his eyes almost had me tearing up. He told me that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him and he’d hold onto those photos for as long as he lived. His dog came over to my car and jumped up to the window with his tail wagging and licked my hand. We said our goodbyes and I headed home.

I have never been homeless but, just like that man, I have suffered hardships in various degrees. Fortunately I’ve always had a job (or three!), a loving and supportive family, a network of friends and in the last three years, the Sangha.

I was raised in a very nice area in a middle class family with two parents and three sisters. All our needs were met growing up and my parents worked extremely hard for everything we had. Looking back, it was a normal childhood with many family holidays and a beautiful home. When I got married, that tradition continued. Beautiful home, lots of stuff, holidays and all needs were met. Then life changed. A separation and divorce brought many losses.

The course of the last ten years really taught me about what’s important.  I lost tons of stuff over those years but always held onto the important things. And I always had my children, family, friends, a roof over my head and food in the fridge. I no longer had the large beautiful home in a nice neighborhood, but I had a roof over my head no matter what. The home I have now is at least three times smaller than my first house and is located in a questionable but interesting area, but it’s mine. I’ve learned to live without a lot of ‘things.’ I felt despair over losing many of the things that I thought were important, but I realize now they were just objects and only cluttered my home. They had no real importance. I keep my yard and home clean and I’m proud of what I have now.

I think about someone I know whose house is done up with lots of things like my home growing up. Her yard is like a vacation spot, just perfect and decorated to the nine’s. I see her stress as she tries to keep everything perfect. She often makes big changes when she gets bored or after she sees someone do something different with their home and yard. Her stress makes her ill at times, but to her it’s important to have a specific look to her home. Over the years I’ve tried to tell her that her family and health are the most important things and I know she knows that. I know I can’t change another person’s outlook or behaviour, I can only change my own, so I no longer say anything and just offer support when needed.

My daily practice of mindfulness and meditation have helped me understand myself better and deal with challenging situations that arise. Although I’m still fairly new to the Dharma and mindfulness, I understand that healing and letting go aren’t easy. Allowing myself the chance to understand the Four Noble Truths and learn the Dharma is giving me insight into the things that really matter in life and helps with the healing and letting go. It also allows or helps me to see things I never noticed before or really paid mind to, such as that man and his dog on the corner.    

I’m not in competition with anyone or anything anymore. I am so grateful for everything I have and I have a lot of gratitude for the people who have helped me along my journey. I have more than the man and his dog have and I have less than a lot of people I know. Having less doesn’t bother me as it did ten years ago. I realize what’s important to me and those are things I’m forever grateful to have in my life.

I’m one of the many who have found out that ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ just takes time away from enjoying life and the important things. I’m happy to be where I’m at now. I’m learning to take things in stride so I can enjoy the important things in life and enjoy things in the moment. It’s been a long journey but one full of lessons that I’m grateful for. I no longer work to buy things that really aren’t important. I work to survive and save for the things I want or for the holidays I need. The material things aren’t so important anymore. Of course, I still have things that would be hard to part with. But I know that if I had to, after a while, I would be able to let them go.

With Metta,
Catherine Sproat