zero sum


“As fearful people we are inclined to develop a mind-set that makes us say: "There's not enough food for everyone, so I better be sure I save enough for myself in case of emergency," or "There's not enough knowledge for everyone to enjoy; so I'd better keep my knowledge to myself, so no one else will use it" or "There's not enough love to give to everybody, so I'd better keep my friends for myself to prevent others from taking them away from me." This is a scarcity mentality. It involves hoarding whatever we have, fearful that we won't have enough to survive. The tragedy, however, is that what you cling to ends up rotting in your hands.

The opposite of a scarcity mentality is an abundancy mentality. With an abundancy mentality we say: ‘There is enough for everyone, more than enough: food, knowledge, love ... everything.’ With this mind-set we give away whatever we have, to whomever we meet. When we see hungry people we give them food. When we meet ignorant people we share our knowledge; when we encounter people in need of love, we offer them friendship and affection and hospitality and introduce them to our family and friends.”

Henri Nouwen, Temptation to Hoard, Henri Nouwen Society Daily meditation, May 6, 2017


Nouwen is first describing our life as a zero-sum mentality. We can only do well or win or succeed if someone else loses, so we are not going to share because there is just so much food, love, land to go around.  There is one pie. If someone takes a slice, there is less for the rest. One person’s gain is another’s loss. This theory describes situations in which the total of wins and losses adds up to zero, and thus one party benefits at the direct expense of another. There is only so much and not enough for all. Some must lose for others to gain. It is a competitive scarcity world view.  It leads to a fear based society.

 On the other hand, the opposite of the scarcity mentality is a positive-sum situation which occurs when the total of gains and losses is greater than zero. A positive sum plan occurs when resources are seen as abundant and an approach is formulated where the desires and needs of all concerned are satisfied. One example would be when two parties both gain financially by participating in a contest, no matter who wins or loses. Positive-sum outcomes occur in instances of distributive bargaining where different interests are negotiated so that everyone’s needs are met. With an abundancy mentality, there is enough for all.

How we view our neighbors and ourselves and the world is totally different in these two views. A zero-sum life style is isolated, lonely with our own self-interest guiding us. A positive sum life sees abundance, gives away food, love, knowledge to those in need, and as Nouwen reminds us, “there are many leftovers.” Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, found in all four gospels, is a story of a positive sum experience.

 I would so love to hear from others about their experience being involved in these two ways of living. My experience is that I am living in fear with zero-sum lifestyle where I am competing with others for the love or attention or support of some entity or person. There is peace in my life when I live knowing there is enough love or support or attention for all.