(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
All of us likely know the popular wisdom saying about killing the goose that lays a golden egg. It’s from one of Aesop’s fables. The story, which I embellish, goes as follows: a happy farmer and his wife live on a small plot of land that provides them all they need. One day the farmer discovers his goose has laid a strange looking egg – one he cannot eat. He realizes it is an egg of solid gold. He and his wife are delighted. They suddenly have wealth they never had. They immediately buy new home furnishings – but soon complain that the new things don’t look very nice in an old and drab farmhouse.
After the goose lays another gold egg, the farmer and his wife build a large new house so their furniture will look nicer. But that winter, the house is cold and damp. The farmer and his wife do not have enough money to buy warm clothes and pay to heat their large home. Once again, the goose comes through and they have enough money to buy winter clothes and provide heat.
But a new house, new furniture and new clothes do not seem enough. They realize that when warm weather comes, they will need new summer clothing, many fans to cool their home, and a horse and wagon to take them to nearby mountains where they can enjoy cooler air. They also say they need new kitchen items to better cook food, new cows to provide fresh milk and cheese, more geese and chickens to provide edible eggs, and a new tractor to till the field on which to grow grain to feed their animals.
The farmer and his wife suddenly realize all of these new things cannot be paid for with one gold egg. They want many gold eggs – and they want them now. The farmer decides they should kill the goose to remove all of its golden eggs at once – and thereby have enough for their many supposed needs. He kills his beloved goose and begins to explore its inside organs. After panicked searching, he finds no gold eggs. He had literally and figuratively killed the goose that lays gold eggs – his ticket to long term well-being.
The fable is obviously one about greed and how the downside of that mindset often leads to excess and overreach. But as Tom just taught our children, the story might also be interpreted as one about differences between abundance mentality and one that is fearful of scarcity. No matter how much we have, our tendency is to think we need more. That’s a truth many people discover when their income improves. The more well-off a person or family becomes, the poorer they often feel. In a 2016 survey, one-third of American households with annual incomes over $75,000.00 live paycheck to paycheck. Nearly 75% of Americans have less than $1000.00 in a readily available cash savings account. The average family owes $16,000.00 in credit card debt.
I’m reminded from these statistics of a commercial that aired a few years ago. A man sits on his lawnmower on lush, green grass in front of a large suburban home. He smiles at the camera and says his family has two new cars, a boat, a house with a swimming pool, and they just returned from a European vacation. He pauses for several seconds – and then says through a very forced smile – “And we’re in debt up to our eyeballs!”
Sadly, many people are killing the goose that lays a golden egg. They choose short-term pleasure over saving that can insure long-term happiness.
For such people we often render unkind judgement. They are greedy and impulsive. Because of these supposed flaws of character, they deserve their financial distress.
But psychologists believe, instead, that many people suffer instead from an unconscious fear of scarcity which prompts behaviors that ironically cause the very thing they fear. The farmer and his wife succumb to that fear. Once they begin to have extra wealth, they spend it on things they believe they need, only to find themselves in a cycle that tells them they don’t have enough – which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead of being content with what one has – which is the foundation of abundance thinking, financial experts say most people fear scarcity no matter how much they earn or have – and so they irrationally go into debt, overspend on housing, and crucially are unable to mentally separate needs from wants.
This fear of scarcity manifests itself in several ways. It begins with feelings of insecurity and a lack of confidence, psychologists say. That insecurity leads to a fear of scarcity which orients the brain to think only of what he or she believes they lack. The hungry focus on food. The lonely focus on social isolation. And those who feel poor focus on buying and spending.
What this irrational mindset causes are counter-intuitive outcomes. The hungry often overeat and become even more unhealthy. The lonely latch on to the first person that shows them attention and often end up driving that potential friend away. Those who feel poor – even persons who earn middle class or higher incomes – overspend and then actually become poor. It’s not gluttony, social awkwardness or greed that causes such results. They all originate from basic insecurity and fear.
As Dr. Brene Brown, author of the book Daring Greatly writes, the fear of scarcity comes from lies our unconscious minds tell us – we don’t have enough, be afraid, consume, consume, consume! We irrationally believe the opposite of scarcity is abundance – lots of food, being a millionaire, or having many friends. In truth, the healthy opposite of scarcity is just enough.
A mentality of scarcity, experts say, causes anti-social behaviors. Such fear causes people to feel entitled, hold grudges, blame others, avoid change, be pessimistic, play the victim, be impulsive, hoard things, hope others will fail, think they already know everything and….overall, to feel unfulfilled. The overriding attitude is one of selfishness and me-first.
A philosophy of abundance – or enough – causes people to instead have mostly cooperative attributes. Experts say that those with an abundance mentality have a strong sense of gratitude, they freely compliment others, they give others credit for things well done, they’re generous and optimistic, they are proactive, they volunteer and serve, they embrace change, they want to continually learn and grow, and overall, they exude joy.
We do not need to be a millionaire, eat large meals, or have a hundred friends to feel abundance. Instead, we simply need enough for basic needs – and then believe we have all we need. That switch of cognition is the way to address inner fear. If I can learn to believe I have enough, and intentionally try to regularly think and feel that way, I will reorient my brain’s thinking and end negative behaviors.
The Swedes have a name for a philosophy of enough. They call it “lagom“ and they use it in a popular proverb which translates as “Enough is as good as a feast.” Swedes are taught at a young age that just the right amount, not too little and not too much, is best. Sweden has some of the world’s highest tax rates – but they use tax money to insure that everyone has “lagom” – enough. And that earns them happiness levels that lead the world. As a culture, they promote the ethic that moderation in all things is key.
Jesus taught about this abundance mentality with his so-called miracle of loaves and fishes. It’s a story told in all four of the Biblical gospels. Five-thousand admirers traveled to the countryside to hear Jesus speak. Like many ministers and rabbis, he spoke too long and it got late. His disciples became afraid. It was getting dark, most of the people lived a ways off and had not eaten for many hours. The only food that could be found were five fish and two loaves of bread. Jesus told them to break the food into pieces and distribute them. Amazingly, all 5000 were fed enough.
Whether or not the miracle happened is not my point. The story and lesson has power. Perhaps less miraculous events did take place. It’s easy to imagine that people who had hidden a stash of food in their clothing were motivated to share. Perhaps many took less then their share. Perhaps others did without – knowing they could forego one meal. Perhaps some enterprising persons began fishing in the nearby Sea of Galilee to provide additional food. Whatever happened, writers of all four gospels believed the story important enough to include since it highlighted Jesus’ attitude about wealth – recognize we already have abundance, trust in the goodness of others, and importantly, always serve, share and give.
The Buddha taught much the same. Our primary problem in life is desire, he said. We want – and then we want some more. These wants cause us distress because we usually don’t get what we want. We then spend a lot of time dreaming and scheming but never feeling content. When we let go of our desire, we learn to be satisfied – I have enough, I need no more, I’m at peace. Our attachment to things, and wanting more of them, as the Buddha said, comes from fear – exactly as modern mental health professionals say.
Instead, Buddhist mindfulness asks us to recognize our fears when we feel them. As we acknowledge them, we should reflect on them: Where does that fear come from? Is it a realistic? What is the truth of my present situation?
Hopefully, such mindful reflection will help one begin to let go of insecurity. I’m not really poor. I have a decent house, enough food, and a few close family members and friends. In truth, I’m rich!
For me, a fear of scarcity has several unwanted effects. I can hold back, hoard money I do have, and be miserly. I convince myself I need an IPhone 8, a new pair of hiking shoes, or nicer things for my house. I can forget that money is simply a means to love, serve and feel the kind of peace that money cannot buy……..(pause)
It is never a minister’s place to tell church members what to pledge and give. That is a deeply personal and very private matter.
What a minister can and should do is suggest the right principles behind giving. Believe me, I require such reminders as much as anyone. It’s a universal truth that irrational fear is unhealthy. It’s why many say the opposite of love is not hate, but instead fear. Learning to let go of feeling insecurity opens up hearts to love, serve and give. A lack of fear helps one understand what is really important – the intangibles of life like feeling totally at peace in the arms of a loved one, enjoying simple pleasures like walks in a park, or the company of dear friends. The greatest of life’s intangible wealth, though, is to feel purpose and meaning – to know that one has tread gently in life – humbly listening, serving, giving and making a difference for good.
No matter the words we use in a Unison Affirmation or Mission Statement, that is who we are and what we do. We come to learn, grow, and be inspired – and then quietly return to our homes, workplaces, schools, and cities to make them better.
We are not perfect in that mission, but we are doing very well. And to make sure that continues, to make sure we do not isolate with fear inside these walls, we depend on each other – in our shared encouragement, serving, sharing and giving. And with that togetherness, we perceive this congregation’s abundance. Our cup overflows.
As we meditate on what to give next year to support the work we do, I know that such a mentality of love and abundance will guide us.
I wish you each much peace and joy…