Human life is about scarcity.
In spirit we live in infinite abundance.
In the flesh, though, we live in finite reality. Choices must be made about how to use our limited resources. We may be able to have it all, but not all at the same time.
While the unconscious effects of scarcity may capture the mind with negative results over the long term, the conscious engaging of scarcity demands that we figure out what we value, that we set clear priorities. Engaging scarcity forces us to make hard choices which reveals a great deal about who we are inside.
In the search for a creation myth — where do we come from, where do we go after, and why are we here — many schools hold the finite nature of life as the core of the gift. They suggest that it is only by being incarnate in a limited world that we are forced to make the choices which make our essence clear. Infinity, well, it just doesn’t teach you what dealing with scarcity does.
This kind of belief system helps us become wiser everyday, more clear and more compassionate. If it doesn’t offer lessons we take with us after we leave our bodies, at least it helps us to become better as humans, choosing more from love than from fear and creating a better world for those around us.
The lessons our ancestors learned from their own struggle with scarcity are often held as valuable in family culture. Discipline, thrift, commitment to others all come out of an understanding that life is precious and needs to be used well.
Johnny Carson had a difficult relationship with his mother Ruth, according to Henry Bushkin’s tale of his relationship with Johnny Carson. Ruth was penurious with compliments, which irked Johnny, whose success was in the world and not in relationships.
He sent her and his father Homer on a first-class cruise around the world, getting angry as they didn’t call with gleeful stories and gratitude. He finally called them after they got back and instead of joyous tales, all he got was that they were “glad to be home,” which infuriated him.
He took his parents to a huge party at Kirk Douglas’ house, full of Hollywood A–Listers who revered Johnny, but when he asked how they enjoyed it, she just told him that she guessed a party is a party anywhere in the country.
“I’ve been to the fire department auxiliary picnic in Norfolk Nebraska,” Johnny is reported to have told Bushkin in frustration, “and it’s not really like what Kirk threw. Do they think that people are lining up to get the recipe for Olive Kilpot’s Macaroni and Cheese?”
When I hear these stories, I suspect that what Johnny and his mother valued were very different. She liked being home rather than being waited on and served rich foods, liked a good chat at a party more than she liked the fancy decorations and luxurious appointments. Johnny loved showing off wealth and status, but his mother found it a ostentatious.
These anecdotes made me think of a Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon story about the Krebsbach’s Vacation. They went to see the kids in LA, who equipped them with a car and maps to all the big attractions, but instead Florian & Myrtle just quietly spent their days at a park a few blocks from the house. They watched guys play soccer, chatted with moms and doted on the kids. With some help from the locals, they ate from the taco truck and enjoyed the California sunshine.
The Krespach’s knew what they valued, which is why they stayed in Lake Wobegon. What they found was someplace completely different but exactly the same, another community of people who valued family, food and fun. It was a spiced up but comforting interlude.
As a child of the depression, Ruth Carson learned what she valued. She didn’t choose to leave Nebraska to chase the shiny, but Johnny did, as soon as he was able, succeeding masterfully in that quest.
The cultural lessons of scarcity are powerful. The “Keep Calm And Carry On” signs and all their many variations come from a British WWII poster that was never released, only printed as part of a series to be used in case of a Nazi invasion of the homeland. The ethos of WWII, of “make-do and mend” are still woven tightly into British culture, reminders of the lessons of tough times.
My experience of scarcity explains why I am very good at what I am good at and very bad at what I am bad at. As a hermetic theologian who took good care of her family, I know that scarcity has taught me many things, even as it has trapped and limited me.
I wonder if the experience of scarcity also tells us something about the relationship between Johnny Carson and his mother, one who was a daughter of scarcity, paring back her vision so much that the swanky was foreign, overwhelming and a bit repellent to her , and the son of that mother who knew that he wanted to “never be hungry again,” grabbing so hard for fame and fortune that relationships were battlegrounds.
Conscious engagement of scarcity can help us make better choices and shape better lives.
To do that, though, we first have to struggle to get clear of the way our mind is unconsciously captured by scarcity, leaving us limited, tunnel focused and only reacting to the deep imprints it can make on us.