Enough. We use the word all the time, but what does “enough” really mean? Is it synonymous with the end, as when we scold a whiny child saying “Enough!” How about “That’s enough” when we push back from the dinner table, or “Enough of this” as an expression of frustration with a tedious task?
Sometimes enough is already too much.
In a response to a letter from a parent about the limits of support for an adult child, syndicated advice columnist Carolyn Hax identified “the personal search for enough “ as one of the major challenges of adulthood. That one simple observation —stated as it was within a much larger discussion of what constitutes good enough, hard enough, happy enough, reliable enough, honest enough—struck me as so succinct and so profound that I couldn’t help but wonder why it had never occurred to me before. Certainly, in a more-more, faster-faster, bigger-bigger consumer culture like America’s, we have become a nation of grown-up children who obviously never conquered that particular developmental challenge! The dire consequence of that failure, of having too much or not enough and lacking the maturity to acknowledge which is which, now finds its collective expression in the political, social, and economic divisions of an angry, suspicious population.
Incongruities abound in such a culture and constantly thwart the efforts of those of us who do try to define enough for ourselves. BOGO! screams the sign. “But I only want one,” I say to the cashier, who insists that I take the extra one as well. Retailers must have a storage problem too. Where is Costco going to put all those huge pallets of toilet paper and paper towels and diapers if they don’t sell them, and where are we supposed to put them when we get them home? Once the garage is full, then we’re forced to live like hoarders inside our houses, with boxes under the beds, dishes stacked on counters, and everything else from extra clothes to Christmas wrap to tchotchkes headed to Goodwill piled in the guest room. Never mind where to put the car (or the guests); most families where I live seem to have more cars than they do licensed drivers, so the garage wouldn’t be adequate anyway, even if both (or three or four) of them were empty. Who can recognize enough when it’s buried under all the clutter!
Prioritize, downsize, simplify: these have become the mantras of our age, but they, too, beg the question of enough because they all require that choices be made — and one choice inevitably precludes another. If you’ve spent any time around small children you know that they have a hard time accepting limits and understanding that they can’t have it all. Sometimes, so do adults. The classic conundrum of the early women’s movement, the working woman vs. the stay-at-home mom, compelled many of us, myself included, to challenge out-dated gender roles in an effort to prove that women could do it all, be it all, and have it all — even without a wife to pick up the slack! What we learned during those long years of career-building, child-rearing, family-managing and house-keeping is that yes, one can perhaps have it all, but only sequentially, not all at once all the time every single day. Ironically though, having learned that lesson and knowing it to be true, many of us, both women and men, continue to live our lives juggling wants, needs and expectations in a perpetual quest to find the right balance.
Having enough is not always about the possessions or the money per se, but more often about what those assets come to represent. In an essay about the “post-economic” super-rich (those who have no financial need to work), writer Alex Williams describes the pursuit of wealth as a competition with others that turns into a personal addiction. (“Why Don’t Rich People Just Stop Working?” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2019) Studies of the super-rich over the years have often shown that those at the top tend to work longer hours and spend less time at leisure even when longer and harder cannot possibly enhance the bottom line. Evidently, they just don’t know how to stop; their entire raison d’être comes from capitalism and their relentless pursuit of success becomes a lifestyle drug. Without more projects, more goals, or more money, these individuals face a loss of personal identity and an existential void. There is never enough to allay those fears.
But more than enough does register with some. Witness Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, in which a growing number of billionaires in American and around the world have pledged to give away at least half their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. While philanthropy will not solve the problems of income disparity, the moral obligation to share the outsized wealth of a few can address some of the social and cultural needs that government cannot. Philanthropy is truly the gift that keeps on giving; foundations such as those created by 19th century families of great wealth such as the Carnegies and the Mellons are still operating and contributing today.
Wealth and well-being are relative concepts in every age and at every socio-economic level. What sociologists call the “relative income hypothesis” is a normal human tendency to compare ourselves with others around us. Such comparisons activate some of our best impulses — a generosity of spirit and a willingness to share our own good fortune — and some of our worst — jealousy and resentment at the good fortune of others. Either way our attitude depends on how we define enough. To paraphrase an oft quoted maxim, “Gratitude is the attitude that what we have is enough.”
With the season of Thanksgiving upon us, this is a good time to take stock, to look at the life we have and to evaluate how well we are living it. Perhaps a few “attitude adjustments” are in order to make those prayers at the Thanksgiving table more meaningful and sincere this year. Whatever you do, though, keep the prayers short and simple, lest someone blurt out “Enough already!”