Monday, November 21, 2011

The Treachery of "Enough"

"Enough" masquerades as a humble word, meekly slipping into sentences that suggest humility, restraint, and wholesomeness:
     "No, I won't take another slice of pie. I've had enough."
     "We may not be rich, but we have enough to get by."
     "Time for bed--you should be sure to get enough sleep."

I know better. "Enough" is a traitor. The word ought to connote security, sufficiency: qualities that help form a stable sense of home in a relationship, place, or profession. Some strong-willed speakers (generally of the scientific bent) can force "enough" to behave by applying it to subjects such as "How much Vitamin K is enough for an average adult?" But for some people, "enough" betrays these ideas of satiety by constantly edging out of sight and off of the horizon.

I am one of those people. (Surprised? No, of course not.) I have never feared failure in any dramatic sense: I have always been pretty good at the things I care about, and with the exception of high-school physics and some early culinary efforts, I have always managed to succeed, if not excel, at whatever I put my hands to. But I fear "enough." I fear disappointing the people who believe in me. I fear wasting my talents. I fear suffering by comparison. Ever since leaving college the specter of "enough" has haunted me. As I near the end of my doctoral work, this specter is growing downright ghoulish, interrupting my reading, my meals, and my rest with questions:

Have you read enough books?
Have you applied for enough jobs?
Have you published enough articles?
Have you walked enough?
Have you given enough money away?
Have you attended enough conferences?
Have you thought enough deep thoughts?
Have you prayed enough? 
Have you spent enough time preparing lesson plans?
Have you made enough professional connections?
Have you written enough?
Have you spent enough time with your housemates?

There are, of course, sensible and rational ways to answer each of these questions, and different mentors and friends in my life have often helped me establish these answers in wise and realistic ways. Unfortunately, I am not always a sensible and rational person. I allow fear to tell me that the only way to do "enough" is to work non-stop, forgoing walks, friends, and even proper meals for the sake of doing just a little bit more. Pride, meanwhile, gilds my trembling with a false glory, telling me that I should boast of the number of hours I worked last week, and that the sleep I lost from over-diligence is a sign of virtue.

I have learned that even on days when I am neither sensible nor rational, I can be grateful, and gratitude is one of the best ways to chase away the unattainable idea of "enough." When I remember that everything--from the bread on my table to the thesis of my next chapter--is a kind of grace, my striving after "enough" gives way to something much better: the recognition of abundance. 

Consider this weekend. My dissertation director praised my arguments in Chapter 2. I went to the Farmers' Market with two dear friends, and had money in my pocket for a basket of pears and a bunch of brilliantly-colored swiss chard. I walked through the neighborhoods surrounding our house, and picked up leaves golden and scarlet from the sycamores and crepe-myrtles. My colleagues congratulated me on a forthcoming article.  My students came and discussed their papers with, then laughed with me about the news on campus. Friends came to the house to celebrate my birthday.  I had a part in all of these things, but their beauty required more than my effort, my wisdom, my work. They are more--much, much more--than enough.

How do you decide what is "enough" in your home, work, or relationships?

1 comment:

  1. I just taught Milton's sonnet "When I consider how my light is spent" this morning. It's a comforting reminder for times when I feel I'm not doing "enough." "They also serve who only stand and wait."