Yesterday, I commented that Christmas should be a time of abundance. Today, I want to try and refine those thoughts. Yesterday, I used abundance and excess as almost interchangeable terms. Today, I need to make clear the difference. Because, as I have thought about it more, I believe that recognising the differences between them is the key to understanding many of the difficulties of the modern world.
Abundance first. To me, abundance is all about giving. It is the state of realizing that a thing (any thing) only realises its true, ultimate value when you give it away. The sun does not demand payment for his rays nor the cloud for her rain. But without them nothing would grow and all would end. The tree gives its fruit. The bird its song. Freely. In abundance. Nature, especially in Autumn, is abundant. All that it has, it offers up. For free. What a gift. Which is why it is so important to go outside and be in Nature. Her warm abundance can cure you – release you from worry and despair. Her generosity offers support for the flagging spirit. It is hard to remain negative in the face of abundance.
I watch my dog. She takes such delight in just being outside. She runs – not to compete, not to beat another dogs. She runs because she loves to run. See her. It is obvious. Straining at the leash, she cannot wait to feel her muscles working, her blood pumping. She has energy in abundance. It is a joy to behold. Contrast this with the grim jogger hauling his poor body along the pavement. Every heavy step witnesses his pain. Running to train. To win the race. To lose the weight. Not for love. Not because he can’t bear to be still. Not out of abundance. I cannot believe that it is good for his health. Soon enough, he probably picks up an injury. Good excuse to stop.
Then again, I do see people running out of abundance. Running out of love. They float. Effortless. Joyful. They are wonderful to watch. The two young men who train on the Linden field on a Thursday evening. They are running well. Their running is of a completely different quality to the grey jogger. They work hard. Really hard. But it doesn’t look like it is work to them. They look like they were born to run. I like to run too. I don’t think that I look like them. But I nowadays I only run when it feels right. I don’t feel the need to run out of duty any more. If I run, I run to express joy. To feel blood, tendon, bone and muscle. Because I enjoy that sensation. I think that exercise is important but that we each need to find the form of exercise that expresses our joy. If you love to dance, then dance. If you love to kick a ball, kick a ball. Just don’t do it because it will do you good. Do it because, for you, it is good – in and of itself.
Which brings us back to abundance. Abundance is in and of itself. You express abundance for no other reason than it feels good to do so. A friend drops by unexpectedly so you find whatever you have in the cupboard. You lay it all out. It is a feast. How could it be otherwise? You give freely because having your friend here to share the meal enhances that meal. Enhances your life. And you weren’t expecting that on this cold and rainy afternoon. My friend, David does this. His work means that he is sometimes in the area and has twenty minutes to spare before his next appointment. So, he pops in. For coffee. We have cake too. Often he brings cake. We talk about bikes. It is always a treat when he comes by. It always enhances the day. A lot of people would feel too shy to just pop in. Worried in case you are busy. I love it that David pops in. I think it is an act of abundance. All he is giving is his company (and perhaps some cake) but he gives it freely, without condition or expectation. It is a great gift to give anybody. David gives in abundance.
For me,then, abundance is always bound up with generosity. It is about the quality of giving. It is giving freely. No charge. Giving it all away. Doesn’t matter how much or how little. The focus is upon the act of giving. Not the nature of what is given. Action not object. Verb not noun. Not what but how.
Excess, on the other hand, is all about the thing, the object. What is given. Its value. Its cost. We live in a world of excess. The culture of excess permeates every pore of our society and it is destroying us. It is easy to spot at Christmas – the constant media pressure to buy more. Bigger presents. More food. Better bargains. Get one free. Sales. Sales. Sales. Spend. Spend. Spend. Stock up your cupboard with extra snacks just in case someone drops in unexpectedly. This is the antithesis of the abundance surrounding David’s visit. This is preparing the defences against unexpected attack. It grows from fear – “If someone pops by and I don’t have the right food to give them, they will judge me. So, I must be prepared.” And so, the surprise visit is turned into a test to be passed, an ordeal to be endured. All joy is sucked from it. This is how excess operates. How it poisons everything.
But excess doesn’t just ruin Christmas. It leaves its toxic trail through all aspects of our lives today. I believe that it has made a travesty of the education system in our country. As an ex-teacher, I saw it up close and it was painful to watch. It began in earnest with League Tables. It was supposed to give parents objective information to help them decide which school their children should attend. What it did was to shift the focus of attention around schools to such an extent that all that matters is results. At first you might think that this is no bad thing. Surely, a focus on results will encourage schools to up their game. Get better results. Certainly, it has made schools better at getting students to pass exams but this is not the same thing as giving them a useful education. In the rush to improve grades we lost sight of whether or not we were teaching anything worthwhile. Michael Gove, for all his faults, did spot this and set out to remedy it. But he made the classic mistake of excess thinking: he focussed on what was taught. So, he conjured up mad lists of what should be on the perfect curriculum. Content. Content. Content. An excess of content. As if we didn’t already have enough. A schooling of excess.
What I advocate is an education of abundance. Where the focus is not on what but how. I don’t mean that anyone should prescribe how teachers teach. God no! Teachers have had enough stress to deal with. I am just suggesting that the conversation around education shifts back to how students are taught, rather than what. There will and should be many voices in that conversation. It will be an ongoing discussion – that is healthy. What is not healthy is the lack of serious discussion about how we have taught our children and that chasm has been there for twenty years or more. I think that is failing our children. Seriously. I want all children to be taught carefully, creatively, lovingly, joyfully, skilfully, sympathetically, honestly, openly, thoroughly, abundantly. It is a big ask. It is the least we should expect for our children.