by Sunny Strasburg, MFT
I had an epiphany on a recent hike with my family in the southern Utah desert. Let me start off by assuring you that my three children are empathic and loving little people. For the hike that morning, I carefully packed healthy lunches for each person, plenty of water, a trail map, and a ziplock bag with about 30 cinnamon bears. These little goodies are among the kids’ favorites, not to mention a useful motivational tool when the trail gets tough.
After the strenuous, but visually rewarding hike, we settled down on a slick-rock outcropping with a jaw-dropping view of the San Rafael Swell laid out before us. The picnic was restorative and relaxing. We all joked and told stories, enjoying our meal together. As an Italian Mama, this is the sort of thing I relish in.
As we were finishing up, our eldest son, Andre grabbed the ziplock bag of bears out of the collective pack and began to slink away to another rock about 30 feet away. “Andre,” I reminded him, “Please be sure to eat 10 or less of those bears and save the rest for the other kids, so that everyone can have a few. That’s all the treats I brought with us today.” He nodded in acknowledgement.
I was surprised, therefore, a few minutes later to hear Xochi first complaining that she couldn’t find the bears, then shriek that Andre had “hogged all of them”. I confronted him, and the sheepish look on his face belied his response, “Um, I dunno…” I was taken aback at the surge of anger that welled up inside me. I harshly snapped, “Dammit Andre, you KNEW there were only a limited amount of those treats. That was really selfish!”
On the walk back to camp, initially there was tension, but ultimately it became a great teaching moment in which we all reflected on the bigger meaning of that episode. I’ll circle back to that lesson in a moment.
At the time, I had been reading a wonderful book called, “The Soul of Money” by Lynne Twist. Twist turned my ideas about money and abundance inside out (yes, that pun was intended.) She discusses the concept of cultivating a sense of “Sufficiency” within ourselves….that we are enough and have enough. As a culture, she explains, through both media programming and our corporate/consumer culture, are in a constant state of yearning for more. We think there’s not enough, and we need more. Most of us wake up in the morning, and our first thoughts are, “I don’t have enough time, I need more. I don’t have enough money, I need more. I don’t have good health, I need more exercise. More. More. More. I need MORE!”
When we are in a constant state of wanting, yearning for, aspiring to, and scheming how to get more, we are never in a state of satiation. And this state infuses everything more deeply that we might realize. Through this collective narrative of lack, and endless search for more, we are missing the abundance that surrounds us right now. And we have done this to such a ridiculous extent, that we are languishing in absolute gluttony and STILL believing we need more.
That’s the saddest part, even in our overstuffed gluttony, because our eyes are focused on the horizon of where the Great Land of More, we are not in a state of appreciation for the abundance that we have right here, right now. We look right past all this goodness- the fact that we (although probably at this rate, not for long) as a nation have clothing, food, education, safe shelter, access to potable water, and advanced medicine– basic necessities than millions of people in the rest of the world do not have.
Especially in the last 30 years, Americans have become narcissistic gluttons. We have fewer than 5% of the world’s population, but make 25% of the world’s pollution. Thirty percent of Americans are obese. And individually Americans have more credit card debt that anyone else in the world.
Meanwhile, in all of this gluttony, the largest extinction in the history of the earth since the dinosaurs is happening at this very moment. Rain forests are being slashed and burned as you read this, and global warming is becoming an undeniable fact, even to the most dense of Neo-Cons. People in impoverished and war-torn countries are starving and suffering horrific epidemics of disease and suffering. Its cause? Overconsumption by the few at the expense of the many. In other words, gluttony.
That was always what rubbed me the wrong way about the Law of Attraction/Abraham and The Secret fad a few years ago. The idea of “Manifesting Abundance”. Now I realize my resistance to it, because it smacks of that old Manifest Destiny philosophy with a New Age facade. Consume more. Have more. Never settle with what you have now. You are not good enough as you are, no, not until you have MORE!
Gluttony used to be a moral sin. And it was a sin in the eyes of most Americans before the 1950’s. I know it sounds like I’m some crazy Puritan, but hang with me for a moment. This isn’t some old fashioned, ridiculous constraint that is useless to us today. It has a purpose. In reality, when the earth is in balance and our food is grown sustainably, resources are limited. Sometimes you have to take less so everyone can have a share. Before food was ridiculously available, back when it was organic because mega-agro business wasn’t invented yet, before farmers were paid by the government to NOT grow crops, before modified corn syrup and genetically modified Frankenfood, food was seen as a valuable and limited natural resource. Being overweight was shameful because it implied a selfishness at everyone else’s expense. At the dinner table, when Tommy took seconds, mom got pissed because that meant Sally was going to go without even her first serving.
The idea Lyne Twist offers, “Sufficiency” feels good to me, novel. Instead of scheming on “how to get mine at any expense”, it’s waking up and telling ourselves, “I have enough, enough money, time, love and health. And what’s more, there’s enough for my family, my friends. In fact, there’s enough for everybody!” And that is a true statement, when paired with each of us engaging that Super-Ego and not taking more than what we need to be comfortable and satisfied and sharing the rest. How about turning around and looking at what we have right now and saying, “Yes, life has been good to me. I have so much wealth right now!”
I can just hear the Neo-Cons and Capitalist cry out, “Its man’s nature to kill or be killed! Its our nature to consume and compete! And what’s more, getting more is what makes us happy!”
And I disagree. We are much happier when we live in a society that is fair, relaxed and cooperative. Wake up boys, its time for a revolution! Your way never worked, as time has proven. Even the most ardent Republican can look around himself and see that the earth is not a limitless resource. It is already overburdened to the brink, way past the point of anything sustainable. We simply cannot continue on this trajectory of gluttony, at least not without everyone (except those 2% of richest gluttons) having to suffer miserably.
And what’s more, even if we don’t look ahead, but stayed in the myopic view of instant gratification, this over-consumption its not even making us happier. Research shows American’s happiness rates peaked in the 1950’s and have gone down ever since. Researchers have even found an income number when people rate themselves the happiest, its $75,000 a year. That’s enough for basic needs and a little bit of padding. Beyond that, there’s actually a decline in happiness with more income.
“This means that aspirations increase with income; after basic needs are met, relative rather than absolute income levels influence well-being.
Money correlates with happiness, but the rate diminishes with more money. In 2010, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that higher earners generally reported better life satisfaction, but people’s day-to-day emotional well-being only rose with earnings until a threshold annual income of $75,000. Wealth has not been making people happier. This is because after the basics for survival are taken care of, money cannot bring people any more happiness than they would experience without it.”
Carol Graham, The Economics of Happiness, 3, 2005.
Happiness declines because more stuff is more to take care of, more to worry about.
Bottom line, having more shit does not make you happy.
That story of poor people in other countries being happier even though they don’t have half of what we do has become so commonplace, its cliche. I’ve seen it myself many times in other countries. After hanging out with Guatemalans in the front, dirt yard of their tiny, cement house, pigs running indoors and out, I was perplexed by the sheer joy they had in the simplest of life’s pleasures. I was left to ponder why they were so damn happy and I was full of stress, and yet I had so much more stuff than them?! Why am I working so God damned hard, I thought, what is all that for if its not making me happier?! I have the answer. People who know how to look at what they have and feel satisfied, have an enormous amount of energy freed up to enjoy ”quality time” with the people and activities they love.
So back to Andre and the Cinnamon Bear Caper. On our way back to camp, Andre said something I find quite profound, “Mom, the happiness I felt gobbling up all those cinnamon bears wasn’t worth how bad I felt when it meant Xochi and Gio wouldn’t have any.” And so it is with all of us. If we take only what we need, relish in our satisfaction in that perfect amount, and share the rest. Wouldn’t the whole world feel like a more fair, sustainable, and much happier place?