Grow Your Mindset of Plenty
Let’s consider toilet paper.
When COVID-19 first hit, it was hard to avoid the panicky stories about people buying up and hoarding toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer. Going to the grocery store was a surreal experience, seeing all the empty shelves where those things were normally stocked.
On social media and in the news, it became common wisdom to attribute those shortages to people behaving selfishly. The narrative we heard - and assumed to be accurate - was that people were stocking up on that stuff way more than they needed; that the “me first” instinct was kicking in.
I’m not sure how many people actually spoke with grocery store managers, or executives in the toilet paper industry, or noticed all the articles written by experts who understand how product supply-chains operate.
Their explanation of why stores were out of toilet paper was a lot more nuanced. Toilet paper initially disappeared because in the toilet paper business, there are two very distinct types of products, each with a completely different manufacturing process and supply chain.
There’s commercial toilet paper: the kind that’s used in restaurants, schools, airports, office buildings, convention centers, hotels, and any other places where large groups of people gather.
Then there’s consumer toilet paper: the kind you and I buy at the grocery store or Target or wherever you shop. It’s the stuff we use at home.
Commercial toilet paper and consumer toilet paper are sourced from trees and other plants, processed, manufactured, packaged, sold, transported, stored and used in completely separate streams. Never the twain shall meet. The process for manufacturing both types of toilet paper, from start to finish, can take many months.
When COVID-19 hit, a massive number of people suddenly started staying at home. Those people were no longer going to places where people gather. The normal and reliable demand for toilet paper was completely disrupted. The entire supply chain for manufacturing and distributing consumer toilet paper was hit with a gigantic surge that no one could keep up with.
To manufacture enough of it to meet demand would take months of round-the-clock work.
So, the shortage of toilet paper on store shelves had nothing to do with people being selfish. It was all about where most people were now using the restroom.
It is true that some folks reacted poorly to that reality. The sudden scarcity of consumer toilet paper and all the frightening images of empty shelves and viral videos of people fighting over jumbo packs of Charmin fed into the perception that your fellow shopper was your enemy; that they were bound to deprive you of something basic to human survival.
It was like a massive social experiment in human behavior, and someone out there is sure to be writing their dissertation on this as we speak. It reinforced deeply held assumptions that when our normal way of life is tossed into a blender, people react poorly; they behave from a place of self-preservation and scarcity.
Or it could be we might believe that deep-down, people behave in self-serving ways all the time, but we just don’t witness it so overtly. So, folks who are usually pleasant enough suddenly start acting like uncaring jerks. They fight over and hoard toilet paper.
The funny thing is, at the same time that was happening, we witnessed another side of human behavior. And we’re still seeing it: people responding to COVID-19 with caring and compassion; health-care workers going above and beyond and risking their own safety. Little kids collecting activity books for nursing home residents. All kinds of people creating new ways online to learn and share and entertain and educate. People doing chores and yard work and running errands for their neighbors. Folks holding food drives.
If on the one hand there’s a perception that humans tend to behave in ways that prove we’re motivated by self-interest and self-preservation to the point of fighting over toilet paper, but on the other hand we see people behaving with generosity, self-giving, courage and compassion, how do we make sense of that apparent contradiction?
Who are we? Are we basically bad with occasional good tendencies? Or are we basically good? Is it that we seem to notice it more when we see bad behavior – which reinforces our existing biases - more than we notice positive behavior?
More importantly, can we trust each other, or should we be on guard? Are we fearful, or hopeful? Do we see the world through a lens of scarce resources, or do we live with an attitude that there’s plenty to go around?
And these days, in what feels like a very divided social climate, where so many choices we make can instantly label us as politically conservative or liberal, where people are demonized on both sides in a mindset of winner-take-all, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s no talking me out of what I believe to be true,” how does all that social angst reinforce our beliefs about human nature?
Is there a better way to understand who we are, and who we can be?
Most everyone is familiar with the story of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people, by starting out with five small loaves of bread and two fish. Not everything Jesus said or did is included in every gospel, but this story is.
The fact that it shows up all four gospels tells us this was an event no one ever wanted to forget. Today we often label this story as a miracle. If that’s true, it’s the only miracle Jesus performs that appears in all four gospels.
That’s why I think it goes beyond the category of miracle. It points to a much larger truth about Jesus’ essential message about the nature of God and how we’re created to live, and how that truth runs counter to the way we often understand reality.
This story is all about a new reality. A new perspective. A new way of understanding our place in the world and our posture toward others. It’s about who we are, and who we can be.
Playing the role of who we often seem to be, are the disciples of Jesus. A big crowd has gathered. Jesus has been speaking for a while and he’s still got plenty to say. They’re out in the middle of nowhere, holding an event. All those people – thousands of them – will be hungry soon, and no one thought ahead to arrange for any food vendors to be there.
The disciples can do the math: between them they only have four small loaves of bread and two small dried fish. On the one hand, they’d like to be able to feed these thousands of folks. But on the other hand, they can hold all the food they have available in that one hand. As far as they can see, it’s a situation of scarcity, plain and simple.
Going against all common sense, Jesus says, “That’ll be plenty.” He blesses the food, the disciples distribute it, and everyone – all 5,00 plus – so about 10,000 if you count women and children, are fed. A miracle, right?
I say yes, it’s a miracle. But not in the sense that any angels descended from the clouds or someone who was dead got up and danced around. If that happened, no one bothered to mention it.
We don’t know the mechanics of how it happened; it’s not described. Some scholars have suggested that all the people pulled food out of their pockets and passed it around and shared what they had.
But how it happened misses the point. It’s a miracle, any way you slice it. What matters is why it happened: to prove that even when we believe that scarcity is the rule of life, even when we think everyone’s first instinct is self-preservation, even when we assume people will behave in ways that are self-serving, the true reality of how we’re made and how we’re meant to understand life, is that there is always plenty.
Jesus is very consistent about that. Name any teaching of his, any story, any other miracle even if you doubt things like miracles.
Every single example without exception points to the truth that our expectations are so often limited about the way things work, and the nature of humanity, and how God operates in the world, and what love makes possible.
Jesus regularly tossed aside those scarce expectations and assumptions with mind-blowing examples of generosity, inclusivity, healing and wholeness, gratitude, and the unstoppable power of self-giving love.
We’re force-fed, every day, a torrent of information reinforcing the idea that we live in a scary and unpredictable world where bad stuff is always happening, people are not to be trusted, things are getting progressively worse, and resources are shrinking.
But here’s a news flash: that’s been true as long as anyone can remember. It was true in the time of Jesus, just as much as it is today. Real life can be and always has been that way. Bad and unpredictable stuff can happen, no matter what year it is.
We may think 2020 is proving to be a real doozy, but any history major can tell you we’ve got nothing on what our ancestors lived through. Ever heard of the Dark Ages?
What Jesus demonstrated every day, and what he showed so powerfully that one day on a hillside, starting out with just four loaves and two fish, is that a greater reality surpasses the frightening reality we’re convinced we’re stuck inside of.
It’s the reality of plenty: the mindset and perception and belief that the power of love, lived out through you and me, has no limits, will never run out, will always exceed our limited expectations, and lives in every person.
It’s the reality that takes for granted that yes, there are and always will be some people who cling to scarcity until their dying breath; people who have a skewed vision of self-interest and fear above all else.
But in spite of those frightened few: those who fear the necessary challenges to systemic racial injustice, those who question the science of keeping everyone healthy by wearing facemasks, those who try to scare us with conspiracy theories and who seek to undermine our civil liberties; our job is not to buy into that limited mindset of scarcity, suspicion, and fear.
We’re better than that. We’re people who believe in plenty: whose eyes and hearts are opened to witness and join in joy and beauty, acts of self-giving love, courage, and compassion.
Back in January, Cathy Free of the Washington Post reported about a young boy and his father who live near Salt Lake City. Chase Hansen was four years old when he first asked his dad, John, about homeless people he noticed on the street. Who were they? Where did they sleep at night?
For Chase and John, that began a journey of reaching out to homeless people by bring them fruit juice smoothies and sitting with them in a public park, to inviting a homeless person to eat lunch with them in a restaurant once a week, where they got to know each other personally.
More than 150 lunches later, John and Chase now run a self-funded charity called Project Empathy. It inspires people to create friendships and make connections with homeless people in their neighborhoods.
If you join in, you take homeless people to lunch, and you can help them connect with resources and agencies that can help with housing, employment, and substance addiction programs.
John says, “Chase and I realized that the country needed an army of people to practice empathy, and that by doing something as simple as taking a homeless person to lunch, we could maybe inspire others to do the same.” He said, “Any time you can help to give someone a voice, it’s empowering.”
The empathy and the empowerment John and Chase Hansen live out is a manifestation of plenty. It’s understanding and appreciating the life God created us for and we can live into.
In the face of every hard reality the world may throw our way, it’s to trust in the goodness in people; the courage, resilience, compassion and self-giving love we all possess because we’ve been made that way.
It’s to live in hope, not fear. To refuse scarcity because we know there is plenty. Because no matter what may come, each and every one of us – every person – is a miracle.