As a rare miracle story that appears in all four canonical gospels, the "Feeding of the Five Thousand (Men)" has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some more conservative readers take the story at face value and assume that there is nothing to figure out -- Jesus miraculously provided food for thousands of people from an amount that would have fed only a few at best. Others consider the story to reflect a "miracle of sharing" -- most people had a bit of food with them, and when they witnessed one act of generosity they brought out what food they had and shared it with one another. One thing that is clear from the story is that Jesus was unwavering in his confidence regarding abundance; the text never attributes to Jesus a fear or concern about scarcity. If there is anything to emulate in this passage, it is that propensity for abundance thinking.
What keeps us oriented toward scarcity rather than abundance? Quite a lot, actually. A significant portion of advertising attempts to induce in consumers the fear that there is not enough to go around, and that they must act quickly if they want to be safe, well-fed, and happy. Our modern mythologies about finances encourage scarcity thinking as well. We believe at a certain level that there is not enough wealth or resources to meet the needs of everyone, and therefore we must strive to get all that we can so that at least our needs will be met. Those who have money and power have a strong desire to hang on to that money and power, because they fear what might happen if they let go of it. Even though one hears tales (often meant to inspire people to spend money on something they don't need) about millionaires who have been bankrupt many times over before accumulating their current wealth, there are profound cultural differences between the "haves" and the "have-nots" -- systems that perpetuate over generations.
It would be fallacious to suggest that everyone in the world has more wealth than they need. In our individual lives, there is a reality of scarcity that cannot be overlooked if one is honest. Most of us cannot sit back and trust that all of our needs will be taken care of by someone else. If we want to be responsible people, most of us must make decisions about how we are going to spend our time and money so that our lives have integrity with our guiding principles. Budgeting time and money and other resources may seem like an exercise in scarcity thinking, but it is possible that many people in industrialized nations spend their personal resources on things that do not actually matter all that much to them -- things that do not align clearly with their personal guiding principles. So, being intentional about how we use what we do have may reveal that we have more abundance in our personal lives than we often think.
Thinking in terms of abundance and scarcity on a small scale, such as the context of a nuclear family or one individual's life, are possible indicators of the level of irrational fear being courted. When one is thinking in terms of scarcity, one is likely to be more anxious and fear-driven, thus one is more prone to reacting to circumstances rather than living out of one's authentic guiding principles. When one thinks instead in terms of abundance, one is more likely to act out of integrity and invoke an inherent creativity -- one is more in tune with what I have taken to calling "inner divinity" or one's most noble self. This does not mean pretending that one has resources that are not practical realities, and it does not mean making fanciful assumptions that something will manifest just because one wills it. Such behaviors are rejections of one's current reality. What is required for authentic abundance thinking is a humble, honest acknowledgement of current reality and commitment to a meaningful guiding principle (or set of principles). A path toward a compelling vision for a preferred future can only be charted if one is honest about one's point of origin.
As an example, we can turn back to the miracle story. Those who see the story as a "miracle of sharing" might assume that most of those thousands of people who decided to follow Jesus out into the countryside were smart enough to take a little food with them. Perhaps they were keeping their food hidden out of fear that others were less well prepared, and scarcity thinking suggests that we need to protect what we have since there isn't enough to go around. The disciples were really the only ones who demonstrated anxiety in the story, though. As they became concerned about how to feed everyone, it's possible that people in this crowd of thousands were already pulling out their food. Perhaps they were even sharing it with one another by the time the disciples made it around with the offer of a bit of fish and bread. Even those who may have been reluctant to let on that they had come prepared would eventually recognize that they could eat what they had -- and perhaps even share some with other people -- without anyone taking advantage of them. As it turned out, there was an abundance. It was thus easy for people to contribute to the twelve baskets of leftovers, since people with an abundance mindset find it much easier to practice generosity.
When we pull back from the perspective of individual lives to examine the larger state of things in our society and in our world, the fact is that we live in a state of abundance. Human beings have constructed artificial systems to consolidate money and power (out of beliefs founded on irrational fears), the result being that every person does not have equal access to the abundance of our world, but that does not change the fact that we have plenty of resources to meet the needs of everyone. Many of us have become very accustomed to satisfying a large percentage of our wants and desires in addition to our needs, however. Scarcity thinking tends to make us a bit self-absorbed from time to time, and we can develop a sense of entitlement that suggests that we are worth more than other people -- that we deserve something that other people do not deserve. We create imbalance. We create the lines that separate Us from Them. That is our current reality.
We could judge that current reality, and we could suggest that the system needs to change to satisfy our ideas about how things should be. We are limited in the extent of our control, however. We actually have control over our own decisions, and we actually have responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. So, while it can be superficially satisfying to proclaim how the world ought to be, what is potentially even more deeply satisfying is for us to make decisions in our own lives that reflect our awareness of abundance and our own meaningful guiding principles. That will most likely mean something a little bit different to everyone. Perhaps it will mean reallocating some time and money more intentionally. Perhaps it will mean being less anxious and fearful about not getting what we think we deserve. Perhaps it will mean taking a few months and going overseas to build wells or care for children on the fringes of their society. Everyone's life is different.
Most likely, even the most intentional among us will slip into scarcity thinking from time to time. We will want to protect ourselves and what we have, we will be anxious about not having enough, and we will perhaps even make claims that we deserve more than other people. Abundance thinking, however, realigns us to a deeper self, a calmer and less anxious self. Abundance thinking affirms the possibilities available to us and invokes our vast creativity. From abundance thinking, generosity and gratitude flow. My personal guiding principle is that people matter -- that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I simply cannot align with that guiding principle in my life if I think in terms of scarcity. What is your guiding principle? Is it served best by thinking in terms of scarcity or in terms of abundance?