Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coping with Abundance

Millions of years of evolution have prepared humans to survive in a dangerous world of scarce resources and aggressive predators. Many human emotions form an armor that served our ancestors well by protecting them against the many deadly dangers of their ancient world. We are always wary; suspicious of dangers lurking everywhere. Our exquisitely sensitive perceptions of fear and anxiety are especially vigilant in alerting us to a wide variety of dangers: real, potential, or imagined. Fear works so quickly that we are poised to defend even before we can comprehend danger.

Our easily learned distrust and hatred of strangers—outsiders who are different and may pose a threat—developed to keep us safe from possible foes. Our quick anger protects our territory, defends against trespassers, and warns potential predators to back off. Violent and persistent revenge also serves to defend us against potential predators. Fighting ability, and other forms of power and predation, often determined who got to eat and who starved to death. Selfish greed was an essential survival skill. Social rank often determined access to mates. Our disgust of toxic substances helps us avoid inedible, poisonous, or rotten plants and animals, allowing us to forage safely for nutritious food. Danger was everywhere and we are ever vigilant in noticing it, repelling it, and attacking it.

But abundance is now beginning to displace the scarcity that characterized the world for billions of years. The world is becoming safer. Can humans, wired to survive in a dangerous world of scarce resources, ever realize the full promise of an abundant world? Can we manage a transition from a wary and selfish defensive posture to a life where we relax and share the wonderful possibilities of a safe world with abundant resources? Can we shed our armor, embrace our hope, and learn to thrive together?

Humans survived for millions of years by mastering the law of the jungle—kill or be killed. But the hopeful among us also preached and professed, in every major religion and culture, another rule, the Golden Rule—where we encourage ourselves to treat others as we wish to be treated, or better yet, as they wish to be treated.

Can humans, built for surviving scarcity, cope with this modern abundance and learn to thrive? Can we overcome the destructive powers of suspicion, fear mongering, terrorism, tyranny, greed, and vanity? Can the golden rule ever displace the rule of the jungle? Can our concept of reciprocity manage the transition from revenge to generosity? Can an eye for an eye ever become one good turn deserves another; can random acts of kindness ever become their own sufficient reward?

The golden rule is skittish and timid. Too often the law of the jungle scares off the golden rule, quickly sending it back into hiding. Shout “fire!” and the art gallery quickly empties. Set the threat level to orange and we gladly take our shoes off at the airport, distrust Muslims, buy guns, and approve additional defense spending. Brandish a gun and the high school is overcome with panic. The asymmetry is stunning, but we have the capacity for restraint, we can decide to avoid conflict. Eventually we learn to act for others instead of to others.

Can we invent a better story for ourselves where we sail into a vast universe of possibility? Can we ever orient ourselves toward abundance, learn to give up control, and enjoy the benefits of taking more risk? Can we abandon a world of winning and losing, acceptance and rejection, assessing friend or foe, strength or weakness, attack or retreat? Can we stop hoarding resources, polishing our armor, worrying about the past and future, and struggling to survive in a world of scarcity even as we create abundance? Can we all enjoy making our own contributions? Can we follow our creative passions? Can we get others to come out of their caves, take off their armor, and fully enroll themselves in important work? Can each of us apply our greatness every day by: seizing the possibilities, simple compassion, and authentic contributions?

Humans can hope, learn, grow, invent, create, and make better choices. If we decide to describe revenge, greed, hubris, vanity, fear, and righteousness as the villains—and people as the hope—we can come together to create the possibility of a better world for ourselves. We can create a world where love displaces hate, selfishness gives way to generosity and contribution, hope overcomes fear, trust replaces suspicion, arrogance matures into humility, helping becomes more rewarding than cheating and stealing, winning gives way to enjoyment and fulfillment, and compassion overcomes anger, revenge, and violence. We can enjoy the awesome beauty of nature, the warm rich comfort of healthy relationships, and peace of mind. We can all learn the art of possibility, we can all practice the Golden Rule, and we can enjoy the remarkable potential of our humanity. All our needs can be met; we can all have enough.

We survived scarcity; we can certainly learn to cope with abundance. Know when it is time to get out of the tanks and into the sports cars. Take the risk, enjoy the ride, and explore the possibilities.