The basic reality of this world is abundance, not scarcity.
How can this be? There is a new war in Israel, and a long war in Ukraine, both over disputed territory. As we burn our limited coal and oil, we are dooming the earth to rising sea levels here, extreme temperatures there, and the extinction of tigers and pandas.
Closer to home, Stanford R&DE's restrictive, bureaucratic policies have denied you all agency and placed you with a roommate who smokes weed incessantly. And you must work harder and longer than every other computer science major to get one of six available jobs at Google.
We will return to the idea that the most important things are abundant. But for a moment, let us assume that resources are as scarce as would seem. Even so, does a zero-sum game mentality help the few scrappiest people to get ahead, or does it exacerbate the problem for everyone—even for the strivers, the activists, the militants?
True, land is limited in the Gaza strip and in the Donbas region. But what should not be limited, and is made so by the way the inhabitants view the land (and their religion, history, and all sorts of factors I do not claim to process here), is the autonomy and survival of two people groups. “Kill them so they don’t kill me” may indeed be true, but it is not helpful. Mutual fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy; a scarcity mindset creates a region much more defined by rape and explosions than worship or wheat fields.
Similarly, the fear surrounding climate change seems to suffocate its activists instead of creating solutions. Even if natural resources are in short supply, the mandate to simply minimize the harm done by the parasitic human race is deeply counterproductive. In choosing to not have children, for instance, a climate activist does not save the earth from a parasite, they deny it a source of creativity and hope. The climate movement is an interesting conglomerate of such counterproductive measures—Germany burning imported coal, for instance, instead of extracting its own, cleaner, shale gas—all achieved by frantic activity, and in the pursuit of vague, impracticable goals. The fixation on scarcity which underlies the movement is not helpful.
The same is true of the policies of Stanford housing, a monstrosity of a bureaucracy. R&DE seems to assume that student satisfaction is a zero-sum game: the website states that “Direct swaps between students are not permitted, as the housing assignment process is meant to be equitable, and not based on who you know.” If a roommate switch makes one student better off, then the trade must have exploited another. Yet by dealing with relationships as if they were a limited resource, R&DE has made them so. Instead of creating community (by definition, a network “based on who you know”), R&DE has made everyone “equitably” miserable.
Whenever the spirit of an organization is one of turmoil, it is usually because of an underlying scarcity mindset, in which fear replaces trust. Yet besides being unpleasant, this fear drives people less effectively than hope draws them. For this reason, organizations which believe that life is a zero-sum game usually rely on coercion: this is true of the war in the Middle East, of climate change regulation, of Stanford’s housing policies.
And perhaps treating life as a zero-sum game is more than unhelpful; perhaps it is untrue. Perhaps, in believing in the abundance of the world, I am the realist, and you are living in a musty cave of your own making.
The important things are abundant: beauty and love, for instance—you can create them with a word, ex nihilo—but if those are too philosophical for you, then consider human ingenuity, the capacity to improve ourselves, and, I would argue, time.
You may say that it is easy for me to talk about abundance, when I walk to class in sunshine filtered through the oak leaves, wondering which grant will fund my next creative endeavor or which of two dozen career paths looks the most appealing. It is true, I have never lacked food or shelter or any necessity; yet every day, I see the most privileged people in the world live as though they are impoverished. As students, we hoard our time, fear our midterms, and dread the future.
But what if the blessings that landed us at Stanford continue into our future? What if our classes were not a burden, but a gift of learning? What if our lives and our society mirror nature, where alpine sunflowers reemerge every spring on the harshest tundra, where a square foot of dry prairie nourishes three dozen species of plants, where no tree or animal dies without sustaining new life?
If unhelpful and false on the larger scale, a scarcity framework is even more domineering over the individual psyche—especially in our enslavement to our schedules. When I set the hours of my day in a ratio to the tasks of my week, the lack of time is, of course, overwhelming. But what if that to-do list is more ephemeral even than the hours and minutes? What if that list reduces work to a “vanity and a striving after wind,” while the ideas that first made us care about the tasks—learning, self-improvement, vocation—offer themselves up to those who love them? As for the hoarding of time, which accounts for most of the anxiety at Stanford, I believe that
Time is not a currency
to be saved, invested, wasted.
Time is a mountain stream,
always present and always new.
Our problem at Stanford is not a scarcity of time (the planets continue to spin out new days), but an abundance of opportunities. So quit whining about, yes, the housing bureaucracy, or about the oppression of the other political front. Go on a walk, and notice the plants. Do the dishes, and enjoy the warm water on your hands. Or, as Wendell Berry put it:
“Friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.”
So I challenge you to rewrite your internal narrative, even for a moment, to ask, “what good thing could happen next?” Dream of what your life could be, and realize the radical freedom that you possess to make your days beautiful, well ordered, and a blessing to the world.