Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

03 January 2011

choose, choosing, choice, chosen

Last night my 17 year old daughter Lulu and her friend and I discussed wealth. I had heard part of an NPR broadcast on the subject and was intrigued when some wealth scholar discussed historical differences in how wealth worked. Previously, people used to amass wealth and then live from it. So, as I pointed out, in Jane Austen novels, people were routinely described in terms of how many pounds a year they lived from. Their base income defined them, but they seemed to live pretty nearly the same lives as those with less. The broadcast went on to say that the wealthy these days, by contrast, must keep buying more and bigger houses and yachts and so on. These things—not the money they live from—define them. These things also place them outside the life of ordinary people. They live a life removed.

Another expert on the broadcast pointed out that, though the U. S. is so wealthy that even our poorest would be seen as rich by global standards, nevertheless, no matter how much money they have, Americans generally consider, not themselves, but only those who make twice as much as they do to be wealthy. Thus, none would refer to themselves as "wealthy."

I told the teenagers that from now on I was going to regard myself as and call myself rich. After all, I enjoy a house, daily showers in hot water, virtually any food that I can think of (and find ingredients for, here in the Oklahoma countryside), the leisure to run 21 miles a week, a gorgeous vista of fields and trees and birds from my living room (aka office) window, several dependable sources of income (jobs, husband's job, savings), and so much more that I can’t begin to list it all.

To my surprise, Lulu—who, like most teenagers and many adults in my acquaintance, seems frighteningly acquisition-minded—ardently agreed. In her Western Civilization class—which she disparagingly referred to as her “Bible study,” because her Christian professor often discusses matters of faith—she had studied what she called the “seven cardinal virtues,” companions to the seven deadly sins. One of them, she said, referenced just such views on wealth as I was expressing (who knew?!) but she couldn’t remember the word for it, so this morning, while she slept, I did some research.

Temperance was probably the word she was looking for, and it’s a good one. But my research brought me to a broader expression of the notion as one of the more encompassing “four cardinal virtues,” prudence. The word has a history as meaning not caution but something more like practical wisdom and was seen by Greeks as well as medieval Scholastics as the root of all virtue: the ability to choose wisely.

Choose is such an interesting word. It is about what we take from what is around us. It speaks of lesser and greater options, of freedom. Things that are especially luxurious are called choice. And, beneath the surface of all chooosing lies rejection. In the context of faith the word choose references all those meanings and more.

I think of Mary’s stressed out sister Martha versus Mary herself, listening and resting at Jesus’ feet, having, as Jesus said, “chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Mary was certainly prudent, a good steward of her wealth.

But then there’s the term “God’s chosen people” and how offensive that sounds to any who do not regard themselves as such—the rejected. Also, there's the whole concept of election—a fancy theological word for some Christians' belief that the saved are "chosen" by God and cannot choose God for themselves, sort of the spiritual opposite of seeking—and Jesus’ cryptic parable of the king’s son’s wedding banquet which those who were invited were all too busy to attend. So, the king sends for the people of the street, “the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10). Everything sounds good up to this point, but then, of these new guests, one forgot to wear his wedding clothes and is bound hand and foot and thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). For, Jesus explains, “many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). I get really worried about what I'm wearing (at this moment, still, to my shame, my nightgown and housecoat—more evidence of my great wealth!) whenever I think about this story.

“I chose you,” Jesus is always reminding his twelve main followers, emphatically reminding them in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The rest of the followers, though, seem to choose Jesus on their own, by my reckoning, sometimes going out of their way to do so. Zacchaeus climbs a tree. The Roman centurion (an officer in charge of one hundred soldiers, in case you’ve always wondered, as I have, what that word meant exactly) sends a servant. The Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter runs after Jesus and wails, so embarrassing and outraging the disciples that they want to send her away. Even after Jesus himself rejects her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), she kneels in the dirt before him and begs and reasons and counters his own arguments and eventually gets what she wants. And Jesus describes her behavior—the wailing and begging and reasoning and arguing; in short, her persistent choosing—as “great faith” (Matthew 15:28).


Laura said...

Very interesting. I like your thought progression.

ali said...

i liked this one a lot. you're right. we're rich people. this makes me think about all those scary stories in the bible about rich people, like lazarus and the rich man. if you embrace the view that all americans are rich, then it is sobering indeed to read those stories. or the woes in the version of the beatitudes in luke.

patty kirk said...

But it's attitudinal, I think. I mean, consider: Zacchaeus was also rich. And possibly Nicodemus. Certainly Joseph of Arimathea. And Old Testament Joseph. All rich guys to emulate, I think. Rich guys to not want to be like would include Sapphira and Ananias and that unhappy young guy who struggled to get through the camel's eye. And your guy who wanted Lazarus to wet his tongue.

ali said...

you're right. it is attitudinal. a good word, kirk. thanks.

David Rupert said...

Was sent here by a mention at www.thehighcalling.com

Love your word "chosen".
It's means I am loved!

Kirsten said...

Just discovering your writing....I'm a person raised and steeped in faith, lost right now, but finding your writing provides some framework of connecting back to that faith. My husband, a steady agnostic, has pointed out several times that we, residents of a 1950's rambler greatly in need of updating, are "rich," and he's correct in the large sense of the word and world! It's helpful in answering the question nagging me often in our buy new buy more culture...What is enough?

Anyway, I'm marking your blog as a favorite and will be back to check your thoughts.