Essay: On Abundance and Envy
Peter Paul Rubens – Abundance (Abundantia)
I cruised southward alone along a curving, coastal dream road in central Maine. I suppose it might have been on the North Shore. It might have been in the Maritimes, though never having been to that region of Canada, I wouldn’t know. The sky was inhabited by a diverse population of cloud styles. In the foreground, dense, grey, self-important tufts sailed along with me at a low altitude. Above them, frivolous wisps formed and dissipated, sometimes gathering into excited groups before being dispelled by the insistent breeze. Higher still, the remainder of atmospheric bodies, dingy, off-white pedestrian slabs, lumbered at an almost imperceptible velocity, occasionally colliding with other members of their number.
The sun infiltrated, then edged its way among and through the precipitous parfait of Atlantic sky. Its beams fell in reckless strokes and dashes creating an unevenly lit wavescape below the unending exodus of subconsciously generated cumulus, nimbus, and cirrus structures. The weakness and sparseness of the light gave no hint as to whether early Spring or late Autumn gusts snagged in the bare branches of oaks and twisting piney shapes that marched to the edges of the rising and falling dunes.
I drove on.
Grandiose captains’ and merchants’ homes lined the ocean-facing side of the road. Often perched atop a bluff, these stately manses must once have hosted lively summer parties at which carousers spilled out onto wrap-around porches and bright music could be heard out on the coves. Victorian-era carolers must have stuffed themselves on cakes and mulled wine and ginger-snaps before they entertained half a dozen families in occupancy in these well-appointed dwellings. Although curiosity threatened to devolve into desire upon seeing some of these estates, their current shuttered, barren state afflicted me with a desolation of spirits.
After some slow miles of seaside touring, I piloted my automobile around a bend in the road. On the left, placed about one hundred feet from the road, I saw an ancient and modest building of shaped granite blocks. Sitting not upon the crest of a hill, but tucked just under the south side of one, the home radiated a compact and efficient elegance. A large deciduous tree, maple or beech, guarded the yard at the center of the house’s circular drive, as well-groomed, but unpretentious, lawns sloped gently to the sand.
In the dream, I recognized the property instantly from previous drives. The home, always so welcoming with it’s plentiful windows and multiple chimneys, had forever been on my wish-list of houses I would strain to possess should its availability ever reach my awareness.
Today, I discovered that I had missed my opportunity yet again. A new family was disembarking from their mini-van and toting groceries or other parcels into the front door. The father smiled and nodded to me as I drove by, while the mother tossed a friendly, if distracted, wave in my direction as she attempted to wrangle her two children and their belongings into the house.
I smiled and returned the wave and nod, surprised that no envy squirmed in my torso. Yes, I had always hoped to enjoy my coffee on the east terrace as the sun rose over the waves. The carriage house would have made an ideal studio, and ample space remained for a small orchard and vineyard. And yet, I felt not resentment, but a peaceful reassurance in the new ownership of my dream home. I continued on in my travels, aiming my car ever-southward, knowing that my sleeping mind would return me to this by-way again one night.
I awoke with this same sense of well-being and satisfaction.
The calm contentedness is more that a pleasantry—it is a blessed relief. I have arrived at the understanding that as people work toward acquiring comforts and creating the life that matches our values and ambitions, we all risk two specific temptations.
On the one hand, a lust for more than we need, or could ever use, is the natural product of a scarcity mentality. This is a problem especially peculiar to developed Western nations. Technology and productivity, combined with more than a little dumb luck, have made our existence one of tremendous abundance for the majority of people. Yet, enough is never enough. Some internal impulse is triggered by amorphous, anxiety-producing external factors and fills us with lust for more. We become first collectors, and then hoarders. Like the dragon sitting jealously atop a mountain of gold and jewels, we cling to every coin and shiny bauble.
Better if we could be more like the squirrels in Autumn. The familiar rodents gather copious amounts of nuts all season, it’s true, but bury the majority of their acorns a few inches under the surface of the soil in hundreds of locations away from the tree. An abundance mentality, then, plants surplus wealth and resources where they stand a chance of sprouting in a sunny place—where they won’t be crowded out in an overly competitive system. The resulting nut tree matures to provide a secure source of plentiful nourishment for all.
On the other hand, our struggle against envy can be equally fraught with destructive emotion and actions. Although envy and jealously are frequently used interchangeably, jealousy leans towards keeping, while envy leans towards getting. As I drove by my “dream house,” I observed that I felt a sense of good will towards the family who now inhabited it. My consciousness was suffused with contentment at the very fact that the sturdy, cozy stone house was home to a friendly, neighborly family, even if not mine. Of course I want to believe that I am winning my own personal battle against an unhealthy desire for things I don’t have (and often don’t need). I am hopeful, though, that my dream is equally a signal of a widespread, growing disgust for over-consumption in Western culture. A shift towards an abundance mentality that will inspire more of us to rediscover moderation in our pursuit of the good life.
The outdoor sports and recreation company, REI, announced this month that its retail stores will not be open on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving. The company suggests that families should consider going for a hike instead of shopping. The West Coast high-end department store, Nordstrom, has posted signs around it’s locations to explain why holiday decorations will remain in storage until after Thanksgiving. And, with increasing frequency in the past few years, I hear about families who are financially able choosing to “adopt” a homeless family struggling simply to provide their children with warm socks and long-sleeved shirts. Or adopting a military unit that doesn’t get to come home on leave for the holidays. Or selflessly supporting some other cause instead of merely wallowing in a haystack of discarded ribbons and bows and wrapping come Christmas afternoon.
In other words, our civilization seems to want to mature into an appreciation and respect for the plenty we have enjoyed for so long. We celebrate Thanksgiving with some thoughts and words of gratitude for the harvest feast that has always symbolized American abundance. Today, we have no excuse for failing to curb our national gluttony. The price for us, for the planet, is too high.
On Thanksgiving, we should indulge in the delicious bounty of flavors and traditions that reassure us that generations of toil and determination are being rewarded with the blessings of prosperity. We should have that second helping of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Or apple pie with Cheddar! I can think of no reason whatsoever not to open up another bottle of Chardonnay and gaze through the glass as the blazing logs in the fireplace are refracted in the wine. And, weather permitting, a game of touch football in the back yard can work off some of that whipped cream and add some frolic to the festivities.
In the days after Thanksgiving, however, as we stare at the plates of leftovers in the fridge, we might reflect on the cornucopia that open-faced turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy represent. And we might remember that, in the coming year, we could do much as individuals and as a nation to help the rest of the world share in our celebration of abundant national sustenance.