This summer a headline in The Washington Post declared, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” The Washington Post teamed up with the Kaiser Family Foundation and surveyed 1,686 American adults. They reported that 46 percent of those who are Christ-followers and 29 percent of those who are not followers of Christ attribute a person being poor to a lack of effort. When some of the statistics were broken down, 53 percent of white evangelicals, 50 percent of Catholics, and 31 percent of those who were atheist, agnostic or without a religious affiliation placed the blame for a person’s poverty on a lack of effort compared to 41 percent, 45 percent, and 65 percent respectively, who stated it was due to circumstances. Based on the research, the article asserts, “When comparing demographics and religious factors, the odds of Christians saying poverty was caused by a lack of effort were 2.2 times that of non-Christians. Compared to those with no religion, the odds of white evangelicals saying a lack of effort causes poverty were 3.2 to 1.” [See Julie Zauzmer, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” The Washington Post, August 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/03/christians-are-more-than-twice-as-likely-to-blame-a-persons-poverty-on-lack-of-effort/?utm_term=.33a234cc2983]
What was my reaction when I read this article? Saddened. It demonstrates how a “pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality is a part of our culture, and conservative Christianity is no exception. But besides displaying this type of rugged individualism, I also wonder how much it reveals our reluctance to embrace another’s pain, to be present to another without judgment.
Let’s face it: as Americans, we have an aversion to difficulties in our instant society with our happy-go-lucky worldview. We hold dear to the mantra, “You can be anything you want to be,” and we uphold stories of the exceptional as proof. From movies on the big screen to weekly reality television shows, we tout this philosophy. Think about a movie that I have personally enjoyed, The Pursuit of Happyness. A favorite actor of mine, Will Smith, plays Chris Gardner, a homeless father with a son in tow who overcomes impossible odds to eventually open a successful brokerage firm. Based on a true story, it demonstrates courage, perseverance, and tenacity with a happy ending while peddling the ideal of the American dream. Or consider the reality-based competitions, such as American Idol, where frequently the lucky winner announces to the world, “Just keep trying. You can have your dream.” Hmmm…tell that to the tens of thousands who did not even make the cut.
Is a person’s inability to become another American success story or overcome difficulties simply a matter of a lack of focus, perseverance, or tenacity?
I recently ran across a book that sheds a different perspective on the answer to this question. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir offer some enlightening research in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much in which they define scarcity as “having less than you feel you need.” When thinking of scarcity, we may naturally call to mind the subject of poverty; however, the authors highlight various kinds of scarcity besides not having enough finances, such as a scarcity of time or a social scarcity in which people have too few social bonds. The authors make an important distinction between “physical scarcity” and “the feeling of scarcity.” Physical scarcity is everywhere in that we all have a limited amount of money, but the authors believe that the feeling of scarcity is not as pervasive. They provide some possible examples such as if we were to imagine a day where our schedules were not full, we may call a friend we have been meaning to call or take a more leisurely lunch. However, if the day was scheduled with back-to-back activities, we may be more likely to focus, using every minute productively. In both examples, each day has the same number of hours (physical scarcity), but our feeling of scarcity dominates one and not the other. Another example is with toothpaste. Have you noticed the tendency to be more liberal with toothpaste when the tube is full and how you are able to use less when the tube is almost empty?
According to the authors, the feeling of scarcity literally “captures the mind” with or without the person’s permission. Such changes in the mind reveal both a positive and a negative trait of scarcity. On the one hand, scarcity makes us more attentive so that we make fewer mistakes; thus, when our schedule is full, we are more focused on our work, resulting in being more creative. Think about it: How many times have you heard or said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it”? On the other hand, our intense centering on one thing generates neglect of other things. The authors call this tunneling, in which we center completely “on managing the scarcity at hand.” Thus, when we are focused on a soon-to-be completed project, we are more creative, but we forget an important meeting. The authors state, “Scarcity in one walk of life means we have less attention, less mind, in the rest of life” (41). This means when we experience scarcity, we have less bandwidth, which means less of an “ability to pay attention, make good decisions” (41–42). The project on which we are focused, then, so consumes us outside of work that we are distracted when assisting our children with homework or conversing with our spouse, or we make a poor decision by adding another project. In the case of poverty, when the mind is captured by scarcity, which generates less mental bandwidth, the authors argue “that the poor do have lower effective capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity” (60).
Whether it is poverty, time, or relationships, the authors make a strong statement: “Scarcity does not just mean less room to fail. It also means a greater opportunity to fail. . . . [I]t provides more opportunity to err, to make misguided choices” (84).
As I sit in middle-America with my middle-class style living, I wonder, “Am I able to have an abundance of presence to others who struggle in an area of scarcity such as food, poverty, loneliness, or busyness?” Or do I reinforce their not-enough mentality?
If a bereaved person speaks to me about being overwhelmed by loneliness which is compounded by her realization it is a couple’s world, do I meet her in her loneliness, giving her space to explore it, or do I say, “Well, you need to go out and meet someone! You should join a local widow’s group, or how about I sign you up on a online dating website?”
If a lonely person who has recently moved says, “I miss my friends back home,” is my tendency an attempt: (1) to make him feel better by immediately saying, “You should stop thinking that way. Soon you will have more friends,” or (2) to reminisce with him about his previous life back home because I know in order to go forwards, one must first go backwards (to borrow from Dr. Alan Wolfelt)?
If a person laments, “I don’t have enough time to get everything done,” how do I respond? Do I instantly try to problem-solve and help the person come up with a plan to accomplish the to-do list? Or do I meet the person in that place of busyness, joining her in her lament?
When a friend of mine lands on a hard times that are quite extended, do I quickly offer advice because I am so uncomfortable with my friend’s ongoing arduous situation and my own vulnerability? Or do I hear the person’s feelings and needs and attempt to normalize my friend’s experience by saying, “Of course you are alarmed. These difficulties can generate feelings of helplessness as you long for some stability in your life”?
As humans, we have a knee-jerk reaction to want to fix things. It reminds me of a story from my husband’s life while we were living in Asia. He had fallen HARD on a very slippery sidewalk; however, before he could assess whether or not he had all of his limbs still intact, some caring nationals immediately came to help him up. To make it more difficult, he didn’t know enough of the language to even tell them he wasn’t ready to get up!
This is a great illustration of what we tend to do: we run ahead of people who are in pain, who are experiencing a difficult situation, or who are simply lamenting, and we attempt to pull them up before they are ready. Rather than being present to them, we are quick to give them another should or should not, which pushes them down, not lifts them up, and contributes to their not-enough thinking.
Sometimes the person may not know they are not ready to move forward, and they try to propel themselves out of their pain. Once again, I turn to my husband’s life for an illustration in which he was hit by a car at age 10 while living in another country. He attempted to stand up prior to assessing he had a broken leg, which resulted in him falling to the ground. After crawling to the side of the road, he looked at his foot and saw it was 180-degrees opposite his knee (by the way, he didn’t speak the language enough to tell the compassionate bystanders, “My Mom lives right up there in that apartment”).
This portrays what I have heard in grief groups: “I shouldn’t be crying,” says a woman whose husband of 40 to 50-some years has died less than five months ago. Or it may appear when a widower quickly marries another woman after his wife of many years has died. Of such a situation, Dr. Alan Wolfelt succinctly stated in a recent seminar, “There are now three in the marriage, not just two.”
I believe that rather than a not-enough mentality, I want to invite us to cultivate a mentality of abundance when we encounter others who are facing difficulties or simply lamenting. To be clear, an abundant mentality is not one of prosperity and health as some Christian traditions proclaim, including some within my own tradition. Such an emphasis, unfortunately, has left some people feeling shame and alone because somehow they are not enough since they do not have wealth and/or health that they have been told Jesus provides. Instead, by drawing from the Gospel of John, I am speaking of abundance in presence when we engage those who have been hit with scarcity thinking. I believe this is the kind of presence that Jesus has.
In September, I posted about John 9 and 10, commenting how these two chapters inform each other. Without restating what I wrote, I want to revisit John 10, focusing on verse 10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (NET). As we read the Fourth Gospel, it seems John depicts Jesus’ whole ministry to be characterized by abundance:
- Ch. 2—wine in abundance at the wedding at Cana;
- Ch. 4—water in abundance as in the words “whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again”;
- Ch. 6—food in abundance at the feeding of 5,000;
- Ch. 10—life in abundance;
- Ch. 21—fish in abundance when the disciples are fishing.
In chapters 10 and 11, it is not only Jesus’ ministry that is about abundance, but we read that Jesus brings abundant life, and that Jesus himself, his very being, is life; thus, he embodies this abundant life of which he speaks.
In chapter 10, Jesus contrasts this abundant life with a thief who steals. For me, the thief has a scarcity mentality—what he has is not enough. But Jesus is not like this. Neither is he like the hired hand who abandons the sheep and runs away. Instead, Jesus remains with the sheep. That is, part of this abundance that Jesus brings is himself . . . his presence. He is present with humanity in his very being in that he is both human and divine. His abundance is not of the kind like the thief that is competitive or individualistic, clinging to what is his. Jesus does not cling to his deity (Phil. 2) but empties himself to be present to humanity. This abundance in presence is so magnanimous that he lays down his very life for us. He, who is life, loves to such an extent that he gives his very life so we may have life abundantly. This is being present to us in the fullest way possible.
John does not stop with Jesus’ abundant presence to us, but he illustrates how another follower, Mary, has a similar type of presence with Jesus, by giving abundantly. In chapter 12, Mary becomes present to Jesus’ upcoming death through her giving of an expensive perfume to wash his feet in preparation for his burial, and the implication is that she is present to the reality that Jesus will not always be among them. As in chapter 10, the issue of the thief who steals surfaces as Judas is called a thief. Like a thief, Judas judges Mary’s actions as not being good enough: she should have sold this and given it to the poor! His not-enough perception is in contrast to Mary’s lavish gift that is offered in abundance so that the aroma of her action permeates the room.
The above incident precedes an additional demonstration of love through the washing of feet in chapter 13 where John highlights another meal prior to the Passover with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus’ actions of washing feet exemplify a love that serves the other while instructing Christ-followers to display in his absence an extravagant love for each other. . . even when faced with betrayal and denial.
Today’s Prayer: Lord, may I be so sensitive to your presence with the other that I love him/her by providing a sacred space of abundant presence and thereby, just maybe, the other becomes more whole.