Over the last several years, I’ve developed a tendency to stockpile. I’ve always had a personal hoarding weakness for books and long-sleeved knit shirts, but recently, I’ve also started collecting large quantities of canned goods, wool blankets, and plastic jugs. I feel more secure–or think I feel more secure–if my freezer is stuffed to the brim and I have small amounts of cash hidden in envelopes throughout the house. The more uncertain the world becomes, the more I squirrel away this and that in hopes of saving myself and those I love.
In Buddhist terms, I am “grasping” in an effort to control the future when the reality is that the future is uncontrollable. All we really have is the present moment.
I know this intellectually, but it didn’t stop me this summer from compulsively picking blackberries and turning them into jam. Thirty jars now lining my pantry shelves just in case we have to ward off a famine this winter. Undoubtedly, I would have made an excellent pioneer, but in this day and age, I’m just chasing the illusion of security.
I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb if I said I’m not the only one overcompensating to make myself feel less apprehensive. Sam’s Clubs and Costcos are jammed with people filling their carts with twelve-packs of toothbrushes and cases of microwavable macaroni and cheese. We own more cars than drivers, build houses that hardly fit on their lots, and buy recreational vehicles we don’t have time to use. When our monetary excesses fail to make us more secure, we stuff ourselves with food–supersized meals and all-you-can-eat buffets. We are living in the land of plenty, and plenty is good, right? Plenty makes us not want and not wanting makes us secure and in control.
In theory, hoarding of any kind should work, but it doesn’t according to an article entitled “When and How to Say ‘Enough!’” by Martha Beck. She says that instead of feeling more secure, we end up fatter, further in debt, and vaguely dissatisfied and anxious. After a particularly large grocery shopping run, I stand and look at my pantry, the shelves hardly able to contain the bounty. The foremost thought in my mind is, “Now what? Now what can I do to bring more security to my world because a full larder didn’t do it?”
Beck writes that we will never achieve a sense of satisfaction and security by stockpiling, by living in a mindset of “just in case.” She suggests that we focus instead on shifting to a “just in time” attitude. She says that by “simply taking your attention off thoughts of scarcity, and persistently focusing on observations of abundance, you can replace the nervous, just-in-case mindset that kept our ancient forebears alive but is killing many of us.”
She suggests the following exercises:
- List ten instances when there wasn’t enough of something (or you thought there wasn’t enough of something) and you survived.
- List ten areas of your life where you have too much.
- List twenty to one thousand wonderful things that entered your life just at the right time, with no effort on your part.
A light bulb went on in my head as I worked through these exercises. Although I might never let my pantry dwindle down to the bare essentials (in case of power outages, natural disasters, or Armageddon where we’d have to head to the hills and live off canned tuna), shifting to a just-in-time attitude–replacing jars of mustard as we use them rather than having two or three as backstock–might extinguish some of the panic that comes with trying to maintain control of the future. Having a little faith that what I need will always be there. Or, and here’s a novel thought, that sometimes what I need is to make do or do without. Just in time feels like an idea of hope, and I like hope.
Excited, I forwarded Beck’s article to my friend Seth who is a pastor in Maine. Within the hour, Seth sent a message back. While he agreed with Beck that our scarcity mindset is driving us off the ledge like a pack of lemmings, he pointed out that there are many people in our country and around the world who are actually living with scarcity and no amount of Beck’s “abundance observing” is going to save them.
He referred to the Israelites who wandered the desert for forty years. They were sustained by manna from heaven, but were instructed by God to gather only what they needed for that day. Stored manna “bred worms and stank.” Seth wrote, “But here is the thing about the example of the Israelites in the desert and the manna from heaven: It is not about individual selves changing their thinking. The story about the manna is about a whole culture being trained out of slave thinking, a whole people being made free, not a single individual.”
I agree with Seth. The whole world needs to change, and dare I say, especially we Americans, most of whom are living with plenty. Perhaps if we adopt a just-in-time rather than just-in-case mentality, an equilibrium will be established that will provide a flow of abundance to those who are truly struggling from scarcity. And in the meantime, those of us who already have enough can relax in the security that our future needs will be met just in time.
I start small. I take stock of all the areas of my life where I am overflowing with plenty– my closet, my pantry, my bookshelves–and make a commitment to refrain from purchasing any more of those items. I have collected my manna for the day and it is enough. Instead of panicking at the idea of ceasing to stockpile, a surprising sense of peace settles over me. Changing my thinking to believe I have enough for now, allows me to read all those unread books on my shelf, combine the clothes I have in new ways, and share some of that blackberry jam with others. There is no sense of deprivation, just a sense of fullness. There is security in not chasing after just in case, and to putting a little faith in just in time.