The Blessings of Scarcity
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Shortly before Halloween, the administrative assistant for the faculty at my campus put out a bowl of candy. I groaned and complained when I saw it, and so did everyone else who walked by. A lot of people took some of the candy, but they complained while they did so.
Why? Isn’t candy a pleasant thing and the act of generosity a moral good? My objection to the candy dish arose because I would like to lose weight, and so, I believe, would everyone else I work with – or at least we would like to like to lose weight . . . Some of those who scowled at the bowl of candy were not just overweight but diabetic. None of us, it seemed, found the pleasant, generous gesture a blessing. Though good in itself, it was a curse to us.
It was not a blessing because we have too many blessings. If once a year on Halloween I got a single chocolate bar from one co-worker and nothing else, that would be a great and unmixed pleasure. But strangely, abundance in pleasures causes them to cease to be pleasures.
Food, leisure, and wealth are thought of as good things, as rewards to strive for. But more food for overweight people, more leisure to those who are bored and directionless, and more wealth for spendthrifts and packrats no longer lead to happiness or health.
Wise people have always kept good things good by fasting, moderation, and seasonal variation. We would be wise to do the same. Christmas or Hannukh or Eid is the glowing celebration it is because we refrain from opening our presents and eating our treats for weeks, despite the anticipation. Eid follows Ramadan; the Easter feast follows the Lenten fast. Summer bounty follows winter bleakness.
But – and I know this is what is rightly called a first-world problem – it’s difficult to live simply and moderately in a society of excess. It’s tempting to be nostalgic for a simpler era, to think that it was easy to be temperate when the blessings of life were scarcer. But it would be historical arrogance to insist that our era is harder to cope with than earlier ones. Well-off people in the Byzantine Empire were surrounded by luxury and excess, for example. They too needed to resist the status quo if they wanted sane living and physical and spiritual health. Even poor people also have a choice between hoarding and generosity, because they too are human, and choice is fundamental for all human beings.
Still, yes, it would be easier to be moderate if we weren’t surrounded by excess. I admit I enjoyed our family Christmas celebrations when we lived in Kyrgyzstan. It was nominally a Muslim country, actually a communist one. Christmas was not celebrated, but Soviet leadership had promoted a New Year’s holiday with a derivative robed benefactor named Ayaz Ata, or Frost Father. A couple of weeks before New Year’s Day, the shops and bazaar stalls started laying out colored cellophane wrapping paper, Kinder Eggs, tinsel garlands, and other small markers of the season. This meant that things my daughters associated with Christmas only appeared around December 20th. They were delirious with excitement and couldn’t wait to set up our sad excuse of an artificial Christmas tree. I loved it – no Xmas kitsch being marketed in October, no Black Friday, no mind-numbing loops of Sinatra singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in every public space, no escalating craziness.
When we lived in Kyrgyzstan, we didn’t have to make any real decisions to be moderate; our circumstances created moderation for us. Back in the States, we had to be – have to be – cranks and curmudgeons in order to live sanely. What a mess. I am grateful for the communities that try to make moderation more normal than excess: for the liturgical year that the church follows, for example, where fast and feast alternate with the seasons; for the local food movement that accepts that not every vegetable or fruit is available every month; even for the academic schedule that I’ve always followed, that allows for an alternation of work and rest. A sane life will have to embrace scarcity and in doing so will find a new enjoyment in abundance.