Zero-sum Game

Not only does the Lord work in mysterious ways, but He often speaks in mysterious ways.

My studies in college revolved around global economics, politics, and their effects on culture, and recently one of God’s mysterious messages has arisen as a theme in prayer and discussions that hearkens back to my freshman year lectures: the Zero-Sum Game.

A layman’s introduction: In the late middle ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans went goo-goo for colonies. Once new continents and worlds were discovered, a European Messiah complex, coupled with a healthy dose of greed, fueled a ravenous land grab. The international policies of the time were surprisingly simple: More colonies equals more trade and more resources to exploit, and that trade/exploration combo can make people disgustingly wealthy. The politics of the day revolved around this zero-sum, fear-based belief that “what isn’t mine is lost.”

During these Colonially-oriented classes, we touched on a commonly-held theory of the time: The Zero-Sum Game. Zero-sum politics can be summed up pretty easily: If I don’t claim something, somebody else will and I end up losing out.

Okay, Aidan, what in the world does this have to do with today’s readings?

Well zero-sum thinking goes far beyond politics; a host of psychological studies and papers have been written on the subject. With that in mind, I’ve recently spent a great deal of time thinking of how a zero-sum bias affects my faith life. Spoiler: it’s not how God thinks, and therefore it doesn’t end well.

Both today’s first reading and the Gospel treat on people’s perceptions of goodness. St. Paul discusses how Good Things, even so good as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are emptied of their meaning without love. Wisdom, prophecy, tongues, all fizzle out if they do not have Love. Alternatively stated, they mean nothing if they are not attuned to the mind of God, who is Love. We may believe that we are doing others a service, we may believe that our preaching has value, I might believe that my reflections are pretty stinkin’ good (as the Gospel says, “Wisdom will be vindicated by her children,” so I suppose time will tell…), but if they are not wholly rooted in a love of Jesus Christ and His Church, then all of those talents are worse than useless: they are distracting, irritating noise.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens the the crowds to kids in a shopping mall: they’re quick to criticize, even contradicting themselves in the process. They’re not happy, and can’t be made happy.

In my life, unhappiness nearly always has some kind of root in comparison. How many of these statements, pulled from my own brain, ring true for you? (I hope I’m not the only one who thinks these things)

  • Why do they have it easier?
  • Why don’t they have to work as hard as I do?
  • Why am I restless? Why don’t I have a more meaningful project that I’m working on?
  • Why don’t I have as much free time as they seem to have?
  • Why am I bored? Their life seems more exciting.
  • Why am I suffering? Especially when they are not?
  • Why don’t they trust me with more important responsibilities?
  • How could they possibly believe that? I’m so glad my beliefs are different.
  • Why can’t they just believe what I do?

Get the idea? “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Do you live your faith with a zero-sum mindset? In comparing yourself to others, do you feel threatened by them? Jealous of them? Do others succeeding make you bitter or eager to point out their shortcomings?

The love of God is overabundant, overflowing, it multiplies: it is grace upon grace. God does not operate in absolutes or finite amounts. God is absolute. God is infinite.

The more I hear of Jesus’ love, the more I see how my jealousy leads me astray from Him. Why does it irk me when others have good things?! Should I not rejoice? Am I no different than those kids in the shopping mall?

Goodness builds. Others’ success edifies, scaffolds, increases. Our job is to love, and to celebrate the blessings of God in our life AND in our sisters’ and brothers’ lives. Don’t be afraid to compliment, don’t be afraid to celebrate others. Most of all, do not give into the lie that what you do not possess is lost. Our call to Love is far different:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, love is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

—1 Cor 13:4-8

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