Abundance is not a measurement. It’s not about having things, or acquiring ‘stuff’, Epicurus tells us, but about enjoying life, delighting in the everyday pleasures that surround us. Abundance comes in those moments when we are truly alive to the present and in how we connect with all life.
Finding the moments of abundance
I’m often taken by surprise at how much life can change with a simple shift of perspective.
When we are viewing life from a sense of overwhelm, it’s so easy to fall into the malaise of seeing everything around as in terms of what is lacking. We’re more apt to think of life as pinched and mean, and, to act from fear or projections. We saw this in the UK during the first lockdown, with strange and unnecessary shortages of basic things: toilet roll, pasta, surface cleaners… People felt or feared, rather than experienced, that there was ‘not enough’. And the sense of lack became a self-fulfilling prophesy as people panicked and over-bought these commodities. A story of ‘not enough’ became an actual scarcity that never needed to be.
But the opposite can also be true. Marcus Aurelius advised that the first thing we should think about each day should be what a privilege it is to be alive. Like Epicurus, he’s suggesting that abundance isn’t about measurable quantities, but is a way of being.
This is something that should be on all our to-be lists because not only is abundance a way of living but it is also an act of hope and a blow against despair. It’s the inverse of living from fear and takes the focus away from the small ego-centred self to enable us to be more outward-looking. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why so many stories of generosity centre on people who don’t, in material terms, have a great deal and yet freely give.
The power of abundance
And it is also a witness to the extent to which abundance is as much a story as it is an objective fact; a powerful story that we can live by and change the world by, which is why, as writers, cultivating a life of abundance and generosity is vital. We write about the human condition in all its incarnations, not as judges, but as witnesses, and we do this most effectively when we show understanding and compassion.
Whatever genre we write in, poetry, fiction, essay … we write about flawed characters, because that’s the only sort of humans there are. Perfect characters and lives are not only dull and bland to read about, they are also a pernicious myth. There are no shiny perfect lives and images of such myths, whether touted by corporations enticing us to buy the ‘perfect’ lifestyle or by influencers whose own lives are not actually a montage of Instagram pictures, only takes us back to that sense of lack and discontent. Writing that deals in real human feelings, experiences and even mess, on the other hand, allows us to develop empathy and kindness; towards others and for ourselves. When we are not undermining ourselves, we are less likely to undermine others, and more likely to find abundance in the midst of the messiness of life.
You cannot lack compassion if you live from a wellspring of abundance, even for yourself. You cannot see the world from a jaundiced and cynical perspective if you are taking in delight in simple pleasures:
- the taste of a tangy physilis uncurled from its papery leaves;
- the sound of the river rushing under a bridge
- a child’s painting filled with exuberant colour
- the luxury of a hot shower after a long day
Nor can you race through life half awake if you are living from a sense of abundance. Instead, we slow down and savour simple pleasures, we pay attention. All of which makes our lives as writers and as humans so much the richer. And, moreover, it opens up the possibility of changing human relations and the future.
And for writers, this includes how we deploy the abundant riches of language to express the power of living from abundance.
Words are our matter, Ursula Le Guin insisted in her last collection of essays. We shape reality with words. Writing is not only a cerebral process, it is at the heart of the rituals and myths through which we process whole swathes of life, physical, emotional, spiritual …
So not only do writers witness to the possibility of shaping life as a story of abundance, but we also participate in this abundance at its source, through the language we use.
When languages are lost, whole varieties of experience and nuances of feeling are lost with them. When words disappear, our abundance diminishes. The botanist and story-teller Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about how the huge vocabulary for mosses is not just linguistic pyrotechnics or abstract and technical lists, but makes a real difference for how we interact with environments. Things that are lumped together in some catch-all lazy terminology are simply not seen, not protected, more likely to become endangered.
The words we use as writers are matter and do matter.
The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is
Susan Sontag says in the essay ‘The Conscience of Words’ in At the Same Time.
Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.
asserts Ursula Le Guin in The Wave in the Mind.
When a whole group of writers protested in 2015 at the Oxford Children’s Dictionary removing words like ‘starling’, ‘adder’, ‘bluebell’, ‘fern’ … in favour of entries like ‘cut and paste’ and ‘broadband’, they weren’t being crusty technophobes trying to foist their bucolic romaniticism on a changing world. Rather, they were making a serious point about how an impoverished language locks step with ecological degredation and a less abundant life.
And when Robert McFarlane followed up the protest with his book The Lost Words, exquisitely illustrated by Jackie Morris, it was as a rallying cry to the power and specificity of language, our clay as writers.
You hold in your hands a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words. To read it you will need to seek, find and speak. It deals in things that are missing and things that are hidden, in absences and in appearances. It is told in gold—the gold of the goldfinches that flit through its pages in charm—and it holds not poems but spells of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.
Words are vital, and as writers we need to revel in them. We need to reach for the freshest, most precise, most vulnerable and revealing words possible. An abundant language has the power to shift our myths and perspectives, as individuals and as societies. An abundant language is, as McFarlane says, strong magic.
Writing away from scarcity
If perfect characters are dull and weave the toxic illusion that life can be perfect; bland, scooped out language, often replete with cliché in lieu of deep thought and lucidity, poisons our view of the world, making it ever more shallow and narrow. Writing in the essay ‘Disaster Clichés: why we use them, why we shouldn’t’, Rowan Fortune points out that every cliché takes the place of,
a more authentic, more original, perhaps rawer, perhaps flawed, perhaps vulnerable response.
He goes on to acknowledge how we reach for clichés because they are a buffer, a way of managing difficult situations without making any deep emotional connection.
Far easier to employ one than to carefully work through someone else’s horror, all the more so if that horror mirrors one being repressed by the cliché’s wielder. But however easier, it is also a form of laziness that wounds us all.
Interestingly, while artists reach for an abundance of language, the limited palette of cliché is more likely to be employed by slogan makers and propagandists. Writers need to be those who resist this scarcity of language, whether it’s impoverished by clichés or streamlined dictionaries. When we pay attention to our hearts, to those in pain, to the world in crisis, it demands deeper, more nuanced, more painful responses from us. It demands writers who care, witness and prophesy; writers who drawn on an abundant language.
As in writing, so in life
Living from a sense of abundance is a choice that encourages us to take joy in a richer language and a slower, more deliberate life. But this doesn’t make the language and life of abundance one of skipping through meadows in a haze of permanent sunshine.
Making the perspective shift from scarcity to abundance is not a claim that we’re already living in utopia or should only write about fluffy bunnies finding an eternal source of carrots.
There’s a strong link between abundance and awe, which in turn leads us to the mysterious, the numinous and even to a sense of terror. A total eclipse is an extraordinary and powerful phenomena. It is awe-inspiring in the extreme, but it can also be deeply shaking.
And we won’t get to utopia without telling some truths about the current bankrupt systems of power and abuse that prevail on our planet.
Abundance isn’t a perspective for those who want to hide in La-la Land. Rather, it’s a mindset for those brave enough to find joy, hope and gratitude even in the midst of chaos, illness, loss, sorrow and mess. It’s the language of those with enough to vision to weave new stories even in desperate times.
Bringing abundance home
Ultimately, abundance is about how we inhabit and make sense of the world, how we are at home (or not) in ourselves and connected to all of life.
When we stop stressing about having more stuff or being on top or always having control; when we don’t distract ourselves with food, shopping, drink, over-work … or whatever our particular poison … then we stop living in scarcity. And when we make space to face ourselves with both honesty and kindness; give our writing time and power to play in the abundant stream of language; slow down and savour simple pleasures … we begin to live in abundance.
It’s never a final destination of course. Some days, the sense of scarcity comes flooding in. Some days the clay of our writing is clogged with clichés and refuses to be fashioned into anything fresh and true.
But we know abundance is all around us and we can gently begin again, and again.
In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf describes moments of epiphany as ‘shocks’ that jolt her out of the ‘cotton wool’ of her ordinary perspective and which she can only make sense of through writing:
… it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; … Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. […]
… behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. … we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.
We are the words. And the words and life are abundant.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses here on the site as well as the opportunity to join this year’s writing community, Kith, While you’re here, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.