I spent my teenage years in New York City. My parents divorced when I was 13 years old, and we moved to the city from the suburbs. I lived with my mother. She worked two jobs for several years, as did my father, to help pay for my brothers’ college tuition. My mother hired a housekeeper, Beulah, to help out at home.
I spent a lot of time with Beulah. She and I developed a friendship that lasted decades after she retired. She was a remarkable person. She grew up on the Mississippi Delta in abject poverty. She lived in the South Bronx with her family. She was a deacon in her church, and was admired and respected by her community. She was the most deeply spiritual and loving person I’d ever met.
After school, she and I would sit at the kitchen table and talk. Like teenagers can be, I was pretty self-absorbed. But, somehow, through the haze of my adolescent self-involvement, I could see that Beulah was a special person — a shining light.
“Honey,” she once said to me, with her deep, rich, Southern accent, “I am the richest person I know. Would you believe it, I have seven pairs of shoes in my closet? I can wear a different pair of shoes every day of the week.”
Many years later, my wife and I visited her in the South Bronx and sat at her kitchen table, soaking up her wisdom.
What did Beulah teach me? Wealth is not about how much money you have in the bank, the car you drive or the size of your house. It’s not about what you do for a living — whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, shoemaker or maid. It comes from a sense of value and worth that emanates from inside. It comes from a feeling of gratitude for what you have. It arises from giving to others and sharing whatever you have to offer — even if that’s just your time.
Material wealth provides comfort and a sense of security. Status results in superficial respect from others. But a person with character, integrity, generosity and a loving heart is respected by others for who they are, not for what they have.
During the recession of 2008, we saw many of our neighbors lose their jobs, their houses and their professions. Many never regained what they had. Economic circumstances can change — sometimes quite quickly. Most of these forces are outside of our control.
It’s easy to focus on the challenges in our life — our losses and our disappointments. But what is in our control? We are still able to cultivate sources of wealth: gratitude, loving kindness and generosity of spirit.
An ancient parable says that 36 saintly men and women secretly hold our world together and help make it a better place. I have always thought of Beulah as one of the secret 36. At a difficult time in my life, she gave me her attention, her love and her wisdom. She helped me become a better person.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.