Nouwen: Zero-Sum

Nouwen: Zero-Sum

Fearful people say: "’There's not enough food for everyone, so I better 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 is what you cling to ends up rotting in your hands.” Henri Nouwen, “Temptation to Hoard,” Henri Nouwen Society Daily meditation, May 6, 2017. Henri J. M. Nouwen p. 100, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, HarperSanFrancisco 1997.


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 only so much food, love, land to go around. There is one pie. If someone takes a slice, there is less for the rest of us. 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 or abundance mentality 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.

My experience is that I am living in fear with zero-sum lifestyle when 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.