It’s hard to be generous when you feel you don’t have enough. The fear of running out is deep, insidious and ingrained; and it presents itself in many guises. Giving in to this fear is to avoid risk, to burden yourself with precautionary excess and to restrict your enjoyment of life itself. It’s time to change your mindset.
On a two-day, 850-mile drive between Austria and Wales, I found myself faced with a traffic jam leading up to a lane closure about a mile ahead. One lane of traffic was almost at a standstill as the other crept steadily ahead, filtering into the first at the last possible moment. For once, I took the bull by the horns and stayed in the moving lane. I crept guiltily past a few cars but, afraid of running out of time and space, slunk back into the slow lane with plenty of room to spare.
‘That’s you all over’, said my fella, ‘you’re always afraid of running out’.
Ouch. His flippant, throwaway comment hit one of those sore spots I’d rather not acknowledge. So many of my self-defeating actions are symptomatic of that deep, underlying fear of not having enough.
You can see me bottle out of moving to the front of a traffic queue because I’m afraid that I’ll run out of room before I can change lanes. Observe a fridge full of leftovers where I’ve put a little of each dish away for later, and beautiful stationery never used because I’m afraid of the time when it’s gone. Watch me getting ready to go out and you’ll see that I pack too much food, and too many clothes, ‘just in case’. I hold back my best writing ideas because I lack the confidence of knowing there’ll be more. Receiving an invitation from a friend, I’ll often turn them down or cut the occasion short because I sense a lack of time.
The list goes on.
Somehow, though, saving something for later doesn’t help. It just serves to prevent you getting the best out of life. The poverty mentality doesn’t just reinforce your perception of lack; it creates new absences that feed the fear and make it grow.
Take the example of the stationery – I love it so I never use it. So I don’t actually have stationery. So I have to buy more that isn’t so precious, meaning I share only substandard stationery with people who deserve the best. Not only that, I’m placing higher value on the thing itself than on the pleasure of using it, or the pleasure others will experience on receiving it. My cupboards contain unused stationery, guilt and disappointment.
And the other examples – I enjoy creative cooking with what’s left in the fridge, but how often have I held back on full enjoyment of a meal the day before? How often have I been burdened by a heavy bag rather than travel light and risk getting it wrong? How many times have I had a bored, wasted day because I have turned down potentially time-consuming (fun) opportunities?
Take a moment to picture the worst-case scenario: you’ll have to wait a few moments for a gap in the traffic; your diary will fill up with enjoyable, productive activities; you’ll be a bit cold or have to buy more food. So what? Not exactly life-threatening!
Further down the road, in another country, another lane was closed and another two sets of queues crept their way forward. I’d like to say I learnt my lesson and cruised forward to the very end of the queue before slipping into the other lane, but it wasn’t to be; the fear of not enough has a powerful grip that is hard to override.
The vicious cycle can only be broken by wholehearted enjoyment of what you have, by taking risks and using everything in your possession for its intended purpose: stationery to be shared, food to be eaten, time and friends to be enjoyed. A Buddhist teaching tells you to treat a cup as if it is already broken – that way every moment you have it is a blessing, and the moment it goes is already accepted. No one need ever regret the loss of something used to its fullest potential.