Will We Ever Have Enough?
Five years ago, in the sopping heat of summer, my husband and I bought our first house in North Carolina. Coming from a cramped apartment in California, we were amused by the prospect of caring for a yard and having storage for art supplies. When we showed pictures of our new bungalow’s layout to the seven-year-old daughter of Bay Area friends, she giggled, then asked, “What are you going to do with two bathrooms? Go at the same time?”
She shared a small, one bathroom house with her family of six. Two bathrooms for two people was more than enough. It was laughable.
What Does It Mean to Have Enough?
Ethicists and economists alike have tried to answer that question within a field referred to as happiness studies.
Thought to have taken off in the late 1970s, happiness studies have concluded two very interesting points. The first conclusion is that people are constantly making adjustments in their assessment of what constitutes enough. This should ring true for anyone who thought they’d be happier once they lost that last ring of belly fat or saved up for that first home, and then, once attained, felt compelled to set an even higher goal for themselves. Once basic needs are met, happiness becomes relative rather than absolute. Writers know this feeling well. We want the validation of being published and then once published we want the comfort of success and then once successful we want to be left alone to make our art in peace. We might experience a brief rise in happiness when we get what we want, but our contentment soon acclimates to nearly the same “set point” as before.
The second conclusion is that the idea of enough is always being judged in relationship to those around us. It’s not that we always want more; we just want to know we’re doing alright in comparison to our neighbor. Only a few months after we moved to North Carolina another friend bought a house in our same neighborhood, except her house had a garage, more privacy, and studio space. I fixated on these differences. Suddenly, I didn’t see our house as such a luxury. Our yard was crowded with bamboo. Our storage shed looked, according to one contractor, “tired.” Not even the idea of two bathrooms delighted me anymore. And so for a good four weeks I wasted my weekday afternoons by searching for bigger houses online. Our next house, I told myself, would be better.
The Concept of Enough Is an Elusive One
The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk received a vision from God about the fate of those who never had enough. In the late 7th century BCE, the Babylonian empire was growing in influence and had just won a decisive battle to become the new superpower of the region. The northern kingdom of Israel had fallen over a century earlier but the southern kingdom of Judah remained, weak and in fear of its fate. Habakkuk had prayed desperately on the Judahites’ behalf, reminding, even chiding, God to pay attention to how justice was being perverted by those whose “own might is their God.”
It may be easy to identify with the Judahites by pointing to the greed of those around us. We get to be the good ones as long as we are giving ten percent of our income at church or living within our means—maybe even composting!—at home. Because who among us is these days? But more often than not I see myself in the Babylonians and their addiction to discontent. In Habakkuk 2:5, God laments “They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death, they never have enough.”
The Inability to Be Satisfied Is Like Death
Like Sheol, the Hebrew word for the grave, we open our throats to consume more, and as we do our ability to taste life lessens. The dangerous “more” is not just money or stuff either (many of my Millennial peers are actually saving money at a higher rate than previous generations, suggesting that material consumerism is losing its hold on us). The dangerous “more” we crave manifests in pursuits such as more one-of-a-kind experiences or more independence in our work. These are not bad things to want in and of themselves, but when we can’t stay still long enough to enjoy these fruits—and offer thanks to the God who grows them—we become like the wandering Babylonians. Every new ambition goes down our throats swiftly, without even the patience required of chewing.
Don’t Worry, the Remedy for Our Discontent Can Be Close at Hand
Now here’s the good news. If the concept of enough is always changing, always relative, then the remedy for our discontent can be close at hand. It’s as close as spending time with small children who laugh at two-bathroom houses. It’s as close as sitting with our neighbors who can’t tithe or aren’t composting but who know something about how to use a nail gun and a needle. It’s as close as surrounding ourselves with friends who savor their lives.
The book of Habakkuk reminds us that our inability to be satisfied cuts us off from the nourishment of community. Last week, taking out the trash to the still “tired” shed, I passed our summer garden. Gardens are wise in the paradox of enough. They tell me that summer’s harvest doesn’t come without the pruning of spring and the death of winter. Seasons of scarcity make possible the perspective of abundance. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes, “Abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn’t just create abundance—community is abundance.” Enough can never grow in isolation but is watered by the company it keeps.
What about you? Have you experienced the never-ending pursuit of enough? Were you able to break the cycle?