We’ve just cruised through another Christmas here at Mitchells Island, and a lovely one it was, with much goodwill, vast amounts of food and perhaps a few too many champagnes. There were quite a number of parties: book club, writers group, garden club, choir, FLAFFs get-togethers, and a street party, not to mention numerous brunches, lunches, sundowners and dinners with good friends. The Shedders celebrated by ourselves and with others. There’s an extra pound or two on the waistline (to dispose of) and a deep-seated feeling of well-being (to hang onto).
The whole experience gives me cause to reflect on the abundance in my life, and the benefits I experience as a result. I’m not alone in this profusion—the papers are full of stories about the vast selection of entertainment one can partake of, of diets to go on, of the great retail success of this Christmas. On my one day of shopping pre-Christmas in Taree I was struck with the smiles and goodwill as people chose, from endless possibilities, the perfect gift and the perfect turkey. There’s no doubt that a sense of abundance can contribute to joy and well-being in one’s life.
I am also familiar with abundance’s evil counterpart: scarcity. For example, in my pre-retirement days, I regularly succumbed to a time-scarcity mentality. “Can’t go to the beach”…”can’t go for coffee”…”can’t sit in the shade with a book”…”can’t do anything nice”—because “I just don’t have time”. (That was all probably closely linked to a money-scarcity mentality: “Gotta work hard ’cause you never know where the next penny is coming from.”) This way of thinking is always accompanied by a walled-up feeling of limited choice, hardship and constraint. The feeling of scarcity brings out the worst in me—resentment, snappiness, covert hostility. Bad behaviour.
Sometimes scarcity shows up in unexpected and unidentified places, for example when someone is dying. It’s a common phenomenon to hear of relatives squabbling around the deathbed and you wonder how that could happen at such a tender time. Putting myself in their shoes, it becomes clear. Time has run out. There’s a deep-seated feeling of scarcity as we confront the finite presence of someone whom we have cherished. They won’t be here much longer to generate any more of that lovin’ feeling. There’s no future. And when a good thing looks like coming to an end, out comes the bad behaviour.
Another case in point: when our bodies are ageing and in strife. Gradually we come to experience a scarcity of strength, of agility, of mental prowess. That is crankiness-making if ever there was just cause.
So—no surprises here—I see that a sense of abundance relates to generosity and one of scarcity relates to ill-will. But there’s another dimension. As complex creatures, we humans get it mixed up. Sometimes we feel that things (time, money, friendships) are scarce when we’re actually perfectly replete. Alternatively, we’re able to generate contentment right in the middle of dreadful circumstances.
Thus it was that retirement was a bit of a shock to me. Suddenly I no longer had any excuse not to be doing exactly what I wanted. I could write, I could sing, I could have all the coffee friends I wanted. I could be full of good cheer! I would like to announce that when my circumstances changed, so did any glass-half-empty attitudes I had. However, it’s taken my system a long time to get with the new program, and I must admit that now and then, even amidst this plethora of abundance, I still forget which half of the glass to look at.
So—if abundance lends itself to generosity, and scarcity lends itself to bad behaviour, what are we to think about this most interesting article I read this week? I was scanning an editorial by Bill Gates (a worthy read called “Good News You Might Have Missed”), about poverty, disease and child mortality. I don’t think of Bill Gates as someone who has experienced the foul breath of scarcity in a long time, but in truth, in his travels to do good work, he and wife Melinda must have exposed themselves to a horrific experience of poverty in a way that few of us do. Yet he calls himself an optimist and, as evidenced by the title of his editorial, he views the world from a glass-half-full perspective.
But here’s the exciting part: Gates references a June 2013 article from the Economist, about world poverty. The article details UN statistics on what is known as the “extreme poverty line” over the last several decades. This is the heart of it:
“In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty…; the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion…). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.”
(I recommend reading the article for more detail and to glimpse the reasons why this has happened.)
I realised, as I sat mulling with my coffee afterward, that I could look at the billion people who are still in hopeless poverty, who are fiercely hungry, angry, grief-stricken and resentful. Or I could look at the 700 million people released from the vice of abject poverty, in less than a generation. Imagine that! How could the world not be a better place, with so much less need to fight and create war and engage in bad behaviour?
As always, I am confronted with the choice. Is the glass half full or half empty? Scarcity or abundance?
So sometimes things are truly scarce, and the glass is nearly empty. Our time has run out with a loved one; we are living in miserable conditions; we are ageing and no longer able to do a fraction of what we used to. Sometimes we are in the midst of plenty and deeply aware of it. And sometimes we feel like we’re lacking what we need, for no good reason, or that we have all we could want, equally for no good reason.
What to make of all this?!—of this tangle of real and imagined, of deeply trod paths of habit and viewpoint? Is the glass half empty or half full or something else altogether?
My personal practice is to (attempt to) notice when I am engaging in bad behaviour. “Hold on,” I say, “surely this relates to a feeling of scarcity.” I can see that I’m looking at and mourning all that empty space in the top of the glass.
And that’s when I know it’s time to look instead at all that glowing, roiling liquid in the bottom of the glass.