Last week, a remote acquaintance of mine said, "I would have read your book by now, but I keep waiting for you to give me an autographed copy." This was a disingenuous attempt to score a free copy, I knew, and sadly, I felt my defenses rally. After all, the book took me over a year to write, and she could easily afford a hundred. In the past I'd given plenty of books away in the name of promotion or just plain generosity, but found those gestures to be largely unappreciated. Discounted merchandise is undervalued. So I told her I'd be happy to autograph a copy when she gets one. And even though I had one in my car, I didn't give it to her. I hoard my own books.
We are all hoarding something. I know this because we are living in a culture of stagnation and poverty so saturated that at this point we're soaked. Since we view business and government as all-powerful, we blame them first, and why not? Jobs and money are scarce. But so are courtesy, service, enthusiasm, compassion, eagerness to please, and a long list of other virtues that are not limited to the business world. Whether we withhold something as concrete as money or as abstract as gratitude, doesn't matter. When we sense a shortage of something, we hoard it. When we hoard something, it blocks the flow of give and take, buy and sell. It also blocks the natural generosity of our higher nature. And that's when things get testy.
Sticking to the business model, there's no shortage of examples. Take the airline industry, where less begets even less. Pretty soon a full-price ticket will buy us a fold-up chair in baggage. Or the banking industry, where fees mount and service recedes on a regular basis. (Does anybody know where all the coin machines went?) Or the phone industry. Or cable. I could go on. The now embedded trend is to charge more for fewer services, even though in many cases these industries are generating unprecedented profits.
In cultures of poverty, we are (individually and collectively) affected more than we realize. We draw more boundaries. There is a you and a me, but no us. Our begrudging reflex to this absence of generosity perpetuates the cycle. We become self-protective. We gather more than we need out of fear there won't be enough. As a result, there's not enough. We hoard; we withhold. We hoard things we don't even realize we're hoarding like anger and resentment, hurling them like grenades at inappropriate and undeserving targets. We withhold compliments, assistance, and love. (We withhold books!) We use whatever deprivation we're experiencing ourselves -- money, time, health, patience, or tender loving care -- to justify the negative changes in our behavior. We're under pressure to pile everything up before the (imaginary) storm, failing to recognize that we are the storm -- that our behavior fuels it.
A culture of poverty thrives in a climate of greed. We can all agree there's plenty of that. For instance, how can a business thrive long-term on the backs of highly-educated but unpaid interns? In the past, interns were paid to do the grunt work while they gained experience and exposure. Now it's a standard practice for businesses to request not just free time, but free published content, content that used to be considered intellectual property with high intrinsic value. In the medical field, hospitals thrive on the backs of doctors now strapped with massive educational debt, sky-rocketing insurance fees, and wages lower than many hospital administrators. But what is a hospital without doctors? What this kind of greed produces is a disgruntled and disloyal work force that gives back as little as it gets. What suffers is the entire dynamic. Giving back as little as we get compounds restriction. Compounded restriction creates tension and angst. The sum of the parts equals not abundance, but abundant economic, emotional, and social poverty.
To end this vicious cycle, we have to understand how much we mean to each other. Not how much business means or a government's overarching policies. Business and government are reflections of what's going on with their people, you and me. They are our representatives; they reflect our values. The real power belongs to us, but it is largely unused and grossly misunderstood. The truth is, on the most fundamental level you hold the answers to my problems and I hold the answer to yours. But that truth is useless if we don't share our talents openly. To share openly we have to figure out how to revive our generosity reflex. When we do, things will change. Families will change. Communities and corporations and even governments will change. It starts where it always starts -- with the individual.
Where to begin?
Ask yourself, how am I blocking the system; what do I hoard? Do I hoard compliments? Do I think someone: looks terrific, did a great job, made my life easier -- and withhold praise? And if so, why? Am I afraid I'll lose something in the process? If I hoard compliments because no one ever compliments me, the way to change that is to let go of the grudge. Let the energy out of its cage and back into circulation.
Or maybe I hoard privacy, not really participating in the family or friendship or work camaraderie. If so, give it another chance. Participate graciously, one conversation or event at a time, and allow things to unfold naturally. If it's done with pure and generous intention, it will work.
Or maybe I hoard pride. Maybe I assume an attitude of superiority over my family, friends and colleagues. Or self-pity. Maybe I secretly enjoy playing the martyr, rarely allowing others to help. Or resentment? Or forgiveness? Or control?
Let it go.
As a society we like to complain about the abstract forces that constrain our lives, and there are a few that could use some finger-pointing. But the entities to which we give power are comprised of human beings. If those human beings personally adopt a conscious plan of abundance instead of poverty, they will reflect and integrate the new values of the people they represent. But first, we have to wake up and practice these values ourselves. Cream rises.
Toward that end, I have a few autographed books I'd like to give away. First five people who send me a message on www.reanolanmartin.com -- they're all yours.
Follow Rea Nolan Martin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@reanolanmartin