by Hrvoje Butkovic
(Johannesburg, South Africa)
When I hear the word abundance, the very sound of it entices me with the promise of a life well worth living. It speaks to me of existence that suffers neither shortage of talent nor the opportunity to express it. It is a dream whose reality helps to unlock the pursuit of other dreams.
In many ways, abundant living is the antithesis of how we have come to experience life. Earning income, protecting and insuring our possessions, keeping an eye out for the latest discounts, strict budgeting so that our daily needs are met, careful planning for our future or perhaps that of our children, and a myriad other similar activities easily overwhelm us and consume a great deal of our time. While we may see them as important – indispensable even – they are nevertheless burdens that we wish we could dispense with.
The promise of abundance is not limited to material aspects of our existence. Abundance of inspiration is a dream-come-true for anyone who wishes to engage in artistic self-expression. Abundance of insight is a prized commodity for anyone who partakes in problem-solving activities. Abundance of love, caring and compassion is an ideal that we strive for; we may even see it as synonymous with human life lived at the height of its potential.
But how do we experience abundance? If the feeling of abundance is what we are after, how do we realise it?
A common approach – one that I have attempted myself – is to try to experience abundance by possessing it. To do so, we accumulate things, the possession of which satisfies our idea of what it means to be abundant. This is a relative concept – how much we need to accumulate is dependent on how much other members of our community or social circle have succeeded in accumulating.
Again this is not limited to material possessions; intangibles are often accumulated just as passionately. This is true of various forms of recognition, such as rewards, accolades and social status. Specialised skills are also sought after and prized in our society. Even basic qualities like patience can be nurtured until they are plentiful.
How effective is this approach in letting us experience abundance?
An honest examination exposes it as a mixed blessing. On the positive side, accumulating material possessions until our basic needs are met goes a long way towards enabling us to live our life in a way that is not burdened by existential concerns. This might not lead to a feeling of abundance, but at least it delivers us from a perpetual reality of scarcity.
We can take this a step further and accumulate material wealth in excess to that of our peers. I have found that this can indeed lead to a sense of abundance. All I need to do is think of the people who are less materially prosperous than me and remind myself of how much more I have than they do, or how much superior my possessions are in terms of quality. The resultant experience is somewhat hazy as it primarily draws on the imagination and visualisation faculties, but it can nevertheless be felt.
On the other hand, this approach requires us to protect the possessions that we have amassed. If our experience of abundance is derived from bountiful possession, then we cannot give it away or risk losing it. We invariably protect it, using law as well as brute strength, and insure it for good measure.
While protection against loss may be aimed at preserving material abundance, it creates an experience that is precisely the opposite. This seemingly paradoxical behaviour unravels itself if we examine the thoughts that give rise to it. When we say that we cannot afford to lose or give away some of our possessions, what we are really saying is that what we have is not enough or barely enough to meet our own needs. This is not a reality of abundance but one of scarcity. As a result, when we resort to protecting our abundance, we don’t experience abundance but a lack of it.
Even though this approach is commonly pursued and may have looked promising at the start, it turned out to suffer from a severe shortcoming. Can it be remedied so that it gives us the desired experience without also giving us its opposite? An examination of an act of giving might prove helpful.
Where I live, I frequently come across people for whom getting by is a daily struggle. Lacking education in an economy that is inundated with unskilled workers, they have little hope of finding employment and are forced to make a living in other ways. Many resort to begging.
A few years ago, I encountered one such person while waiting at a busy intersection. She was elderly – a further disadvantage when seeking employment. Her skin was wrinkled, her face was dirty, her hair was dishevelled and her clothes were old and torn. There was no doubt in my mind that she was struggling to get by and that her livelihood was entirely dependent on the generosity of others. She approached me as I was waiting in the car. There was hope in her eyes, though I could tell that she expected to be dismissed – the treatment that beggars usually received.
Seeing the difficulty of her circumstances, I reached for the money that I had with me and gave some of it to her. It wasn’t much at all, but I could tell from the excited expression on her face and the words of gratitude that it meant the world to her. She was holding material abundance in her hand. By giving it to her, I got to share in her experience.
It was only later when I analysed the encounter that I grasped its significance. By giving her the money, I was effectively making the statement that I had so much that I could afford to give some of it away. It didn’t matter how rich or poor I was relative to my peers, I was able to experience abundance by the simple act of helping to fill the material insufficiency that had dominated her experience up until then.
This experience stood in stark contrast with others, where I had declined to do so. This inaction amounted to the statement that I had so little that I couldn’t afford to share any of it. Again it didn’t matter how rich or poor I was relative to my peers, I experienced poverty by the simple act of holding on to my possessions when I could see that their sharing was desperately needed.
These two were polar opposites on a continuum of experience that was made possible by such circumstances. In addition to experiencing them in their extreme form, I also experienced various combinations of abundance and scarcity. The latter resulted from acting generously while holding on to the thought that I couldn’t really afford to do so.
There was a significant difference between the experience of abundance that accompanied an act of giving and the experience of abundance that was achieved through contemplation of my possessions. The latter was a product of imagination, not unlike picturing what it would be like to put a theoretical concept into practice. The former was a visceral sense of its practical application. It was more intense; in the encounter with the elderly lady, lavishly so.
The insight that I gained was that it is in the giving rather than hoarding that we truly experience abundance. However, we cannot give that which we do not have. This presents us with a paradox – if we are to give, we must also possess, and we aim to possess so that we can give. This doesn’t mean that it is necessary to own material things in order to experience abundance; it is sufficient that we fill the gaps that we find by whatever means we have at our disposal.
Perhaps the most widespread example of how insufficiency can be filled without giving away material possessions is to be found in the domain of skills. They can make use of ordinary items to accomplish extraordinary feats, or simply endow them with extraordinary value.
A block of stone holds little appeal until the inessentials are chipped away by a skilled sculptor. Few people give paints, a brush and an empty canvas a second glance, yet deftly arrange them into a masterpiece and it takes their breath away. Powerful medicine and sophisticated medical equipment make little difference to a sick person on their own, but in the hands of an expert, they acquire life-saving qualities. As is the case with material possessions, it is not in the mastering of skills but in applying them where they are needed that we experience their bounty.
If our goal is to know our abundance intellectually, then accumulating material possessions and mastering prized skills will give us that. However, if our goal is to have a genuine experience of abundance, these things become steps in a larger process. The question then becomes not what skills we have mastered, but what we can do with them; not how much we have come to possess, but how much we can afford to give away.