Greed comes in many forms. We most often think of it as an unnecessary desire for “too much” material acquisition. Of course, we can be greedy for anything-sex, power, knowledge. Among the Christian seven deadly sins, it is differentiated from other “too much” faults such as lust and gluttony. The former is commonly associated with sex and the latter with food or fashion. All three characterize appetites well beyond what is necessary for sustenance. So taking them together as thoughts and deeds of excess, I want to briefly discuss greed as it relates to illness and ourselves.
The impulse for this piece came from the tears I shed, unable to to sleep due spasticity arising from another uti, listening to Levon Helm, ill with cancer, singing Happy Traum’s “Golden Bird,” on his Grammy winning Electric Dirt album in the “high, lonesome wail” of his blues and Appalachian roots, 3 years before his death. The song, in voice and lyric, describes for me the danger to self and others the need to grasp and hold onto what I feel I must have regardless of cost.
The song is sung by a man who “walking along a path in the mountains,” sees a bird with golden wings in the sun of the morning.. It’s beauty was such, and I felt I must have it, he goes on, and
Finally angered that I couldn’t catch it, he finds
a stone by a mountain stream flowing…
It felt so warm and alive in my hand
It was an arrow, my arm was a bow…then… a cry pierced the air…
Weeping I left it, the thing that had fallen
Blood stained my hands and tears wet my cheek.
That night as he lays in his bed, he hears the sound of wings
and The room became bathed in a warm, golden glow
I opened my eyes and a woman stood there, singing
Did not you know when you hurt me so cruelly
I was your love, I was your friend.
You couldn’t stand it that I was so free
Now you will never see me again.
Of course, in one reading, it is the sad tale of a man who loses a woman he loved, for he tried to control her and treated her so cruelly. And as sad a commonplace as the caged bird that does not sung may be, that is not my fate. So let me not talk falsely.
Do you wonder why I weep? I see myself, Dante, at mid life having entered the dark wood. And mixing our myths as myths are meant to do to us, he looks back and up at his own Icarus self. Desperate to hold onto youth, to time as it flies by on its golden wings, unable to tolerate the truth of impermanence, he grabs a stone, even so hard an object rounded by the flow of time. He does not live in the present moment because he fears its end in death. We are greedy for life and beauty so we miss them, radiantly here and now.
This morning, looking at the obituaries, we cannot believe we are nearly seventy. But who can believe their age? I can’t believe I’m thirty or forty or fifty or sixty or eighty or ninety. And what of the fantasy of living to one hundred and fifty or two hundred. Will we believe it then? And if we slow our aging, will others, as well? And will we accumulate years with our current strengths, aches, pains or will they worsen? And what of the earth’s resources, its carrying capacity?
And what will we do with that extra time? Explore ways to stretch our life span to two hundred years? To what end? To what purpose under heaven? For greed, there is only one season, getting and keeping and getting some more. Are there songs for which you weep?