Our Scarcity Mentality

In a country of abundance, why do we believe our liberties are so scarce?


In a world of plenty, I live as though joy is rationed.

What I mean is: If my career takes off, then I feel certain my marriage will tank. If I’m praised or complimented, I brace for excoriation. If I’m financially stable, it follows I must be an emotional wreck. It’s not punishment. It’s balance. My thinking is a classic response to scarcity, or “the fundamental economic problem of having seemingly unlimited human wants in a world of limited resources.”

A scarcity mentality, to borrow a hackneyed metaphor from Steven Covey’s oft-quoted The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is based on the “one pie” theory. If someone gets a big piece, everyone else inevitably gets a smaller portion.

The principle applies beyond economics. I’m not talking about vying for resources with others. I’m playing an inane zero sum game against myself. Inevitably, I lose.

Perhaps because I recognize this mentality in myself, it pains me to see a sense of scarcity underlying the discourse about the Orlando tragedy. The same mentality that often puts me at war with myself is also tearing our country apart.

The tragedy is being parsed and diluted by either/or. It was an act of terror, or an act of hate. Either we ban immigration from Muslim countries, or we won’t be safe. Either we protect our right to bear arms — even arms that are designed to be killing machines — or we lose our freedom. Either we don’t care about political correctness, or we are weak.

The subtext is that rights must be rationed, pain limited, the protection of individual groups divvied up. The subtext is simply that there isn’t enough freedom to go around. We bunker down in our political camps and horde our sympathy, our love. Our very liberty feels scarce.

The subtext is that there isn’t enough freedom to go around.

In a nation of such abundance — of resources, identities and cultures — this is as fearful as it is perverse. It’s also a quick way to bankrupt ourselves. Living with a scarcity mindset leads to choices that are both craven and short-sighted. I have perpetuated that mindset in my own life by making decisions based on the belief that everything — time, money, success, happiness — is in short supply.

I wish it were easier to see abundance in my own life.

In his gorgeous essay “In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club,” novelist Justin Torres writes about the opposite of scarcity:

People talk about liberation as if it’s some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that’s it, you get some rights, and that’s it, you get some acknowledgment and that’s it, happy now? But you’re going back down into the muck of it every day; this world constricts. You know what the opposite of Latin Night at the Queer Club is? Another Day in Straight White America. So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive.

“Safe space” is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it. So when you walk through the door and it’s a salsa beat, and brown bodies, queer bodies, all writhing in some fake smoke and strobing lights, no matter how cool, how detached, how over-it you think you are, Latin Night at the Queer Club breaks your cool. You can’t help but smile, this is for you, for us.

As Torres points out, a sense of safety breeds expansion: a recognition that we, and our lives, are broader, deeper, and fuller than the outside world might want us to believe. Expansion is not just a feeling, but a mindset, too, the belief that the more I’m able to fully express my authentic self in the world, the more space I create, the more room there’ll be for your authentic self, too. There’s not one pie, there’s endless supply of them, and the more you eat, the more you’re served.

The endless and ever-growing permutations of what it means to be an American — gay and Latinx, for instance — are part of what creates expansion and abundance. In other words, safe spaces are not created by walls or restrictions; they are limited by them.

In a wrenching video testimony from a survivor of the Orlando shooting, he describes how patients were given different colored tags to indicate the severity of their injuries. It’s similar to our triage approach to finding long-term solutions to gun violence, homophobia and terrorism. We staunch the visible bleeding, but don’t take time to make sure the less salient wounds heal. It’s scarce and cynical way of looking at future, and it makes me wonder why our super-sized country is playing small.

Screw my scarcity mentality. It’s almost a social responsibility. I’m going to try to stop hedging my bets and open my arms wide for all the joy, all the success, and all the pain. Loving big and living expansively — and allowing other to do the same — is perhaps the only antidote I can think of right now in a country that feels increasingly narrow.

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