Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Scarcity and Abundance


Here’s something you don’t hear too often: “We had an excellent staff meeting yesterday.” But it was true. First, two teachers reported on the Brain and Learning Conference they attended and then we had a guest author present some thoughts from her book “Don’t Leave the Story in the Book.” My little Memo book was filling up with reminders of things I already know expressed in new language and things I had yet to consider. Amidst the many pithy nuggets of wisdom—things like “confidence and competence often come together” and “happiness is essential to learning,” one thing stood out.

“Scarcity breeds gratitude. Abundance shuts it down.”  When you don’t have much, you are grateful for what comes your way. Each thing is endowed with greater value and thus, greater appreciation. I think of this often when it comes to giving gifts to my children’s generation, kids raised in abundance. I still have records that I remember buying with hard-earned money, books that were given as cherished gifts, even little keepsakes passed on. But whether giving specially-made CD’s to my students or books to nephews and nieces for birthdays, I have the sensation of each given thing being quickly washed away in the roaring river of abundance rather than floating in the streamlet of scarcity. And some of this is just pure mathematics— the more you have, the harder it is to keep track of things, maintain relationship with each thing, value each thing.

No one would ever wish an economic depression on any society and yet people forced to turn to the “shelter of each other” (the title of an excellent Mary Pipher book on this very subject) and make do with less found the necessary inner resources to not only survive, but thrive in other ways—after all, some of the finest jazz standard songs written were penned in the 30’s. People worked hard to recover prosperity and dreamed of better times. How ironic that when the better economic times came, people were not necessarily happier and possibly less happy, less friendly, less resourceful and less grateful. And how often I feel my generation complaining about today’s kids sense of entitlement, their lack of gratitude, their disappointment or downright anger if they don’t get their i-Pod upgraded when their friends do

Another related topic came up. “Struggle helps learning.” We all know brilliant kids who glide by because everything comes easy to them and when confronted with challenge, tend to back down. Meanwhile, people like me who have to work hard for even the most rudimentary achievement in many things, develop habits of perseverance and truly know what they know because struggle has helped store things in long-term memory. On the last day of Black History month, I can’t help but think that some of the extraordinary things black folks achieved in a vast number of fields were aided by the constant struggle to overcome the odds.

How odd that the two things we wish most for our children—abundance and a life free from struggle—may just be the very things that can work against their sense of happiness and fulfillment. Of course, it’s a matter of proportion. No one in their right mind would extol poverty and racism as “good grist for the mill of character development.” But a conscious restraint, a simple life not overwhelmed with stuff, adults willing to let their kids struggle through things—from the timestables to personal relationships— without trying to fix it too soon, can help us recover the gifts of scarcity without the actual hunger or grinding poverty, of struggle without intolerable racism or sexism or classism. They can help us create a culture of gratitude. 

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