From scarcity and hierarchy, through abundance to miracle


The story of scarcity infects not only my relationship with time, but with other people. It destroys my peace of mind and isolates me from the world. My habit of rushing for no real reason usually hurts only me. More damaging is an ingrained tendency to see difference, to rank myself in comparison with others, or to let biases stand unexamined. As long as I believe there isn’t enough to go around, I will mindlessly go after my share before someone else grabs it. Since those in positions of power stand the best chance of getting the goods, it’s only natural to strive for domination and control over others, right? We are told from childhood that’s how to get what we want.

In a 2005 New York Times essay, “The Founding Sachems,” author Charles Mann outlined the influence of Haudenosaunee’s “Great Law of Peace” on the colonists and founding fathers. The democratic ideals practiced by this alliance of six tribes, also known as the Iroquois confederation, derived from an unshakable belief in the sanctity and value of each individual, man, woman, and child.

Mann makes the point that modern American freedom of expression, nonconformity and disdain for authority come directly from the civilizations that pre-dated European settlement. The Puritans arrived here with their rigid social hierarchies and found an entirely different form of relating and governance. As unusual as this democracy may have appeared, the story it arose from was even more counter-intuitive: that the world operates from abundance, not scarcity.

It’s curious that America remains a symbol of individual liberty worldwide, especially in hot spots like Ukraine, the Middle East, Korea and China, because by all appearances we do have rigid social hierarchies here. People with wealth and education assume they are better than less educated people of modest means. I first noticed this with a college roommate who worshipped wealthy people. She unconsciously put them on a pedestal, which struck me as very strange, given my solidly middle class suburban, public-school upbringing. She was from rural Virginia, so I thought maybe those values persisted in the South as a hangover from the corrosive effects of slavery.

I’ve since been disabused of that theory, because hierarchy is everywhere. New England has its Boston “bluebloods,” those families of pure Old England who trace their family trees to the Mayflower. And here in Baltimore, I experienced it directly when working for a boss who designed rich people’s houses. These clients — CEOs of financial firms, banks, and law practices — knew my boss as a fellow alumnus and trustee of an elite private school here. It’s a very tight social circle.

On one occasion, I was at an estate with an intern, measuring the back of the house where a new addition would be built. I was in the den, walls tastefully covered with framed photographs of the owners with famous and powerful people like Ron and Nancy Reagan. Their high-school-age son came into the room and gave me a look he’d barely bother to spare for a housekeeper. His patrician disregard struck me as incongruous, if not rude, this kid so unwilling to extend courtesy to an adult guest.

Maybe it was the tape measure in my hand, but it was a stark, shocking moment that left me feeling “less-than,” chafing, as a skilled and well-trained architect, against being lumped in with the hired help.

Which nicely demonstrates how easily I can fall into the same story of hierarchy. My statements above reveal several biases: 1) that I’m more worthy of respect than a “lowly” housekeeper; 2) that adults are superior to teens and should be acknowledged as such; and 3) that educated people (me, with two degrees and professional licensure) are superior to those who do service work. Or, for that matter, who are still in high school.

Their photographs with politicians bring up another point. Washington D.C. is rife with this sort of social superiority. It’s not just the exclusivity of groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution. The infection is widespread with power-over hierarchies all around. People who abuse their position play politics as a game of strategy, apparently thinking little of their role as trusted representatives of the will of the people. (I’ll resist naming names here, because there are examples all along the political spectrum.)

None of this was what the Founders intended, and is a poor reflection of the true democracy (as true as can be, among fallible humans) that they learned from Native Americans. So how did we backslide so far? It’s not like our Constitution is some fancy theory based on hopelessly idealized versions of humans. There was a centuries-old workable model in place on the continent, one that impressed early settlers and provided European intellectuals like Locke with examples of liberty to illustrate their treatises.

Until we recognize that this sort of social hierarchy flows from a scarcity mentality, we will remain stuck playing these roles. As with many such traps, there is another way to think about this. Instead of seeing only scarcity, we can turn instead to the story of abundance. It’s a simple fact that everything we need for life is freely given: air, sunlight, rain, earth, even our very breath. And there’s always more where that came from.

The great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote about the “miracle of mindfulness” that comes from a steady focus on one’s breath. Mindfulness brings us in touch with the vastness of the present moment, the limitless potential and abundance that is within and all around us. It is possible to experience this by exploring simple rituals like conscious eating or mindful walking.

The scarcity story strikes me as a particularly difficult one to move on from. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: it drives consumer materialism, destroys our democracy, and results in thousands of injustices large and small against people and the natural world. It is a one-way ticket to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

In my determination to live into the story of abundance, I turn to wisdom traditions and poets who remind me that I am surrounded by it. Here’s a good one: the Sanskrit word for miracle is “Camatkara,” which the Tantric scholar Douglas Brooks translates literally as, “the ecstatic revelation that there is always more.” It’s not necessary to take this as an abstract concept on faith. I have experienced this feeling of “always more” on the yoga mat, as a pose unfolds from within my body. I have felt it in an autumn forest, kicking the newly fallen leaves as I walk. It sounds corny to my scarcity-conditioned ears to say it, but everything I need truly is right here and there is more than enough to go around.

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