Penny Wise

Recently I was writing a blog with a couple of my friends.  The blog had more to do with business than spirituality.  I am always amused by how much work I do within a business context, but then remember that business is nothing more than people.  In fact, I am in the “people business,” so any context is a possibility for my involvement.  The basic point of our work was not to be stupid.  That seems simple enough!
   
I was editing some of what my co-author had written.  Suddenly, I knew the perfect saying to edit into the text.  But in the moment, I could not cite the phrase.  I stepped out to ask my secretary, but she could not come up with the phrase.  She is quite a bit younger than I am, which made me wonder whether younger generations use the phrase?  We all know languages evolve, which means some terms and phrases drop out of daily usage and new things creep into daily language. 
   
For some reason, the word “flesh” was floating in my mind as part of the slogan.  It turns out this was not correct, which means it misled us.  We floundered for a while chasing dead ends down the computer search.  Of course, it is amazing the things that do come up.  It is easy to get distracted and stay busy looking up things, but making no progress.  At some point, I felt guilty about wasting her time, so I suggested calling off the search.  But she is tenacious.  She finally nailed it.
   
“Penny wise, pound foolish,” she asked.  Indeed!  That’s it.  It was as if we won the lottery, but no money was involved---ironically even though the phrase was about money!  But it really was not about money.  It is really about prudence or wisdom.  And I know prudence is one of the classical virtues, so in that sense, it is about spirituality.  I would argue spirituality---like religion---is always about being virtuous. 
   
I was intrigued by the phrase, which I heard so often while growing up on that Indiana farm.  A little research yields interesting results.  The phrase means people can be careful about smaller things that don’t really matter (penny) and overlook, underestimate or waste things that are of significant value (pound).  It was obvious to me British money was the context for the saying.  This meant it either originated somewhere in the British Isles or in this country in the early days when British money would have been the currency.  It is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but there is little evidence this was his creation.
   
In saying the word, pound, refers to the basic British currency, which is much like our word, dollar.  In contemporary British money there are 100 pence (pennies) in one pound.  So the saying is clear.  Don’t pay undue attention to one penny and ignore 100!  That is why it is about prudence---being wise.  In other words, don’t be stupid!
   
It is spiritual for me because I am confident our culture---particularly our commercial culture---entices us to pay attention to thing we don’t need.  If we watch any television or commercials online, we are lured into buying cars, beer, clothes, rings---you name it.  We are lured into looking different than we look, say different things than we say and act in different ways than we act.  Thomas Merton, my favorite monk, says this is an invitation to become a false self.  I think he was on to something.
   
Our culture is enticing us to pay attention to the pennies.  We are tempted to become penny wise.  In the process we forget about being pound foolish.  It is similar to paying attention only to today and forgetting we need to be ready for tomorrow.  This reminds me of the classical fable of the ant and grasshopper.  As you remember, the grasshopper squandered his time and when push came to shove, was forced to ask the ant for some food.  The ant was the prudent one.  Often prudence is as simple as preparing oneself.  I think this is core to the spiritual life.
   
One of the ways I like to talk about spirituality is that it offers a way of making meaning in life.  Meaning is usually tied up with purpose.  If I am spiritually penny wise, I am chasing short-term, flashy kinds of experiences.  I may think getting rich will bring meaning and offer me a chance to have a purpose.  But study after study suggest this simply is not true.  There is no good correlation between money and happiness.
   
Monks who take a vow of poverty are often happy characters.  It is because they have chosen a life that delivers for them real meaning.  They become clear about their purpose in life.  They are working to become their true self and avoiding, insofar as they can, being a false self.  The key is, of course, figuring out what the “pound” in your life is.  Preparation and discipline come into play as we labor for that which is worth something. 
   
We all know we sometimes work for things that turn out to be worthless.  Ask the grasshopper!  His frivolous summer days gave way to more dangerous times ahead.  He wasted time on pennies and blew his chance to have pounds.  The teaching is clear to us: don’t be penny wise, pound foolish.

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