When is it ever “Enough”?
As of January 31, 2023, I'm (once again) unemployed. Rather than forcing myself back into yet another job that I hate (or that hates me), I’ve decided to give myself some space to figure out exactly why I’ve spent so many years doing jobs that don't really meet my needs.
Which is not to say that I haven’t been able to make enough money. The jobs I’ve held in the last ten years have paid me excellent salaries, and perhaps I should just shut the fuck up and be happy with that. Find another 'good job', earn some ‘good money’ and dream of retirement. But the idea of jumping back into the workforce right now feels soul-crushing.
I know that being able to take a pause from work to figure my shit out is an enormous privilege from the perspective of the majority of people on earth living hand-to-mouth. And yet. Forcing myself to suffer simply because other people are suffering doesn’t really make sense to me. Instead, using my current socio-economic comfort to make space for figuring out how I can be a better person and thereby help other people is probably the most ideal use of privilege there is.
To be able to unwind and analyze the life I’ve built with my family, and then determine where and how to move soundly and earnestly into middle age is a gift. I am grateful for it. Unlike past periods of unemployment where I was obsessed with finding more work, this unexpected midlife pause in earning has caused me to question my priorities and the values of our society; and to ask myself the question, “When is it ever enough?”
We talk about poverty in America, but America is the 1% of the global population. Even our poorest poor people have infinitely more access and resources than those in other parts of the world.
I grew up very poor in this society and still got a basic education, stayed fed, read books constantly (thanks to the public library) and was eventually able to climb my way up to the middle class propelled by my mom’s insistance that we were just as good as anyone else and had every right to be counted; and, of course, with the help of my stalwart, hard-working immigrant spouse.
This is not to say that I don’t have hangups and trauma around the poverty of my youth. Poverty is a bitch and it fucks you up in all kinds of ways that can take a lifetime to work out. The point I’m making, however, is that even in our poverty we almost always had enough. Sometimes it was ‘just enough’ or ‘barely enough.’ And yes, there were even a few times when we didn’t have enough and we were literally hungry and worried and afraid, dependent on charity and the begrudging assistance of a society that thinks poverty is a result of moral failing - but those times were, thankfully, rare. Compared to parts of the world where shoes are considered a luxury and child labor is an ugly necessity, I had it good.
As I write these lines I’m sitting in the living room of a modest middle-class house in Austin, Texas. I have a spouse who earns well and two kids in college who get our support. We have health insurance. I don’t have to stick to a tight budget when I go to the grocery store. My life is good. Still, I find myself anxious about not having enough.
Then I look at people who have so much more than we do (and this goes beyond income). I think about how unfair it is that they have so many things I will never have. Opportunities. Degrees. Big Houses. Magazine Covers. Millions of Dollars to start a business or run a charity. I resent my late start in life, and having to play catch up for decades just to be in the middle class.
Then, I look back at where I came from, and at the millions of other people who have only a fraction of what I currently have and I realize…
It will never be enough.
Years ago I went to a fancy dinner party in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Austin. A sprawling house atop a hill, filled with wealthy people talking about their businesses and vacations and other boring party topics. In the corner, I saw an older couple who were quietly observing the crowd. Being a natural introvert, I made my way over to them in the hopes I could sit quietly alongside and pass the time.
They were the parents of one of other guests and were just visiting Austin. Both were doctors and had spent the last several years in Africa working in villages to provide medical services. They were genteel, calm and polite.
I asked them about their time in Africa and they loosened up, regaling me with stories about the hardships, the long days and the scope of the issues they were facing there.
“It must be nice to be back,” I said, assuming they were happy to be getting some respite from their life of material martyrdom.
At that point they both rushed to correct me.
“No, no,” said the woman. “There’s a lot of problems there, to be sure. The poverty is shocking. But the people are are so happy and full of life. Everyone here is miserable all the time. We can’t wait to go back!”
There’s a lot of talk in America these days about how terrible billionaires are, and how evil capitalism is, but I think there’s something very important missing from that conversation. Billionaires aren’t some other species. Capitalism isn’t just some economic system imposed on us. The economic engine of this country is us, and we love to consume.
We, The (vast majority of the) People of these United States, who are addicted to comparing ourselves only to those who have more than we do. We, whose homes each have at least one room where we can go inside and take a hot shower in clean water, in private, any day of the week. We, who throw billions of dollars every year at Amazon.com for shit we (let us be honest) really, truly do not need.
Our Black Friday sales are violent. Our children take on immoral levels of debt to go to college to become ‘good earners.’ Our social media feeds are a barrage of crap that has no real value, marketed to us with a silver-plated spoon — and we click, and we order. TikTok made me buy it.
We consume and consume even when it's unnecessary and then to assuage our guilt, we scream sanctimoniously about capitalism as if it were not actually being fueled by our consumption. We really and truly seem to believe that if we got rid of billionaires, we wouldn’t keep making more of them. Ultimately, we want our billionaire bad guys; our glamorous, diamond-encrusted celebs; and our privileged academic and political elites who pay big money to masquerade as meritocratic. If we didn't want them, we wouldn't be so goddamn eager to support them with our money, attention and votes.
I’ve come to realize that no matter how hard I work at the things that are important to me, I will never get to ‘make a difference’ in America because my values are different from those held by the people in our society who have the most money and power; and our society – like every other society in the history of the world – is made in the image of the powerful, the wealthy.
Because in the end, nothing can save us from the exact same fate that befalls every other human being — past, present or foreseeable future. Nothing that we can earn or own is going to fulfill us and make us love ourselves and the people around us any better. No amount of achievements, awards or recognition will be important to us as we meet and embrace the ends of our lives.
It will always be about the humans we live with and planet we live on that determines whether we’ve lived well.
In reality, human beings need relatively very little to live well. And maybe some folks have figured this out already, but as I ponder what I want to do with the rest of my life (I just turned 49 this month), I am taking an inventory of what my needs actually are, and how I want to live out the time I have left.
What the world (and America specifically) needs right now is a whole lot of introspection. No one will ever declare, “I have enough already!” It’s not in our nature. (That’s why even in socialist and communist societies people hoard resources, engage in nepotism and prioritize themselves and their tribal affiliations over all others.) What each of us must do now is ask ourselves: “When will I have enough?”
For my part, I’m now deeply aware that I have enough. And yet, I still find myself wanting more. I want to be able to landscape my yard, visit Japan, write stories that get published, and make creative contributions that allow people to remember me when I’m gone. But do I need these things to be happy? Are these things a measure of my worth? What if I never get them? And how much time and energy and vitality am I willing to sacrifice in service of my habits of consumption?
Ultimately, I must learn to value myself and appreciate my life without those external acquisitions, because I'm now very clear that even if I achieve these things, I'll find something else to chase after. These days I'm spending enormous effort to “reprogram” myself and overhaul my list of priorities. Right now the most valuable asset I have is time, and I’m going to use it as wisely as possible.
More than anything, I want to make my decisions based on what is intrinsically important to me, not according to the fucked up values of a society that cannot reckon with a cancerous collective materialism that is destroying the planet and diminishing our humanity.
Enough is enough.
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