The first time my oldest son went trick-or-treating, he was dressed up as a bumblebee, but he turned into a monster. Because, paradoxically, inundation always ends with a sense of deprivation…
My son was two-years-old when it happened. We dressed him up in a puffy black and yellow costume, and we rang his first Halloween doorbell. As the first pieces of candy disappeared into his bag, he was too overwhelmed with wonder to utter a word.
By the third house, he had recovered his speech, and he expressed his childlike gratitude. By the fifth house, he was doing drive-by trick-or-treating—the candy hadn’t hit the bottom of the bag before he was hitting the sidewalk for the next score. By the seventh house, I think he would have wrestled the loot from the woman’s hands if he’d been big enough to take her. And by the end of the evening, when we told him it was time to stop, he was angry, because even at his age, he knew we hadn’t turned over every rock in search of sugar.
From a sense of wonder to a sense of deprivation. In about thirty minutes.
It doesn’t take long for opulence to change our lives.
When More is Less
I suppose you could write off his behavior as the greediness of childhood. But I don’t think he was acting like a kid; I think he was acting a like a human.
We are the most affluent generation in the history of the world. We have more toys, more gadgets, more technology, more ways to access music and books and television and movies, more rooms in our houses, and more cars in our garages than ever before. And yet, we feel a growing sense of scarcity. The more we have, it seems, the more we are aware of what we don’t have.
We have more stuff than ever before, and we have more choices than ever before. When we stand in the cereal aisle and choose one flavor, we have to give up fifty other flavors. When we have ten toys to choose from, buying one of them doesn’t feel satisfying, because it’s a reminder of the nine toys we couldn’t have. This morning, my daughter deliberated for several minutes about which of four different styles of straws she would use to drink her juice. She chose one.
But I think she felt more like she didn’t drink out of three.
Halloween is several days away, and we’ll watch the transformation wrought by copious amounts of good things. And, in a couple of months, as the holidays arrive, we’ll have our annual reminder of how humans work: the more gifts we get, the more gifts we want. It is no coincidence that the day after Christmas is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
We keep trying to satisfy our hunger for more by feeding it, but it’s only making us hungrier. We shouldn’t be feeding it; we should be starving it.
And Less is More
Last week, I retreated to a cabin in the woods. One room. One bed. One fireplace. Two nights and three days. No television, no cellular reception, no WiFi. Just me and the trees and a book to read. I thought I’d be completely alone but, when I arrived, I quickly discovered I had a companion: my sense of deprivation was with me.
And in the first hours of the retreat it swelled.
I reached for my phone repeatedly and felt the loss of what I wouldn’t know and who I wouldn’t interact with and the entertainment I wouldn’t enjoy. I dwelled on the ways I could be using my time better, haunted by the to-do lists that weren’t shrinking. I even tried to manufacture choices for myself: sit, go for a hike, read, pray, write.
But then I remembered: there’s really only one thing we don’t have to choose. Only one thing always happening. Only one thing that is always the first thing. I remembered, there’s always just this one breath. And then the next one.
My sense of deprivation swelled. And I breathed. And my sense of deprivation popped. Like a balloon with a pin-prick. The air went in and out of me, and the air went out of my sense of scarcity and lacking and neediness and greediness.
Sometimes, contentedness is as simple as learning to breathe again. Or, rather, remembering again that we are already breathing, and that life need not be more complicated in this moment than taking the next one.
I Was Reminded
What did I “get” out of my retreat? Absolutely nothing. Which was kind of the point. And the blessed nothingness of it reminded me:
Breathing isn’t a given, it’s a gift.
More stuff equals more strife.
When we decrease our options, we increase our joy.
Stillness is not the absence of progress; it is the most peaceful kind of progress.
Simplicity is the birthplace of satisfaction.
And less is truly more.
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