Day 6: Enough Is Enough (Truism, Not Tautology)
When I was in my early twenties, I went through a bad spell financially, occupationally, and spiritually. I had a college degree in the humanities (English literature, with a 4.0 GPA) and a frenzied determination to be a writer. At 22, despite that 4.0 GPA, “starving artist” had an appealing, adventurous ring to it. Although I rented an apartment just old enough to exhibit peeling dirty linoleum and scuffed paint and to have appliances that squeaked with the effort of working and gave off vague smells of past mundane depravity (apparently the previous residents had stored both beer and cigarettes in the refrigerator, because each time the door opened, the smell of stale bar air flowed out and pooled cooly around my ankles), I romanticized all of it and saw in my mind’s eye a fabulous New York studio that was fashionably, charmingly old. My mind’s eye would not have passed muster if subjected to a test of psychological clarity. Rose-colored glasses could not even have improved my immutable perception that I would join that class of struggling geniuses before me who had eventually risen to literary greatness. One could not, I reasoned, struggle toward anything without living in some degree of squalor out of which to rise, if possible while documenting said struggle in powerful, gritty prose.
To the deep and often-stated chagrin of my family, I purposely took “monkeywork” jobs such as waitressing and answering phones. This was to leave me plenty of time for my real life’s work of writing. I called these jobs monkeywork because I reasoned that even a trained monkey could do them; in the first of many disconcerting realizations about adulthood, I quickly noted that I lagged behind the average primate in my ability to balance plates and transfer calls without hanging up on people. The second disconcerting realization was that the attractiveness of the idea of writing far surpassed the actuality of it and that my main emerging skill consisted of finding truly inventive reasons to avoid sitting at my desk and writing at all.
The inevitable outcome of (1) my lack of motivation to apply butt to chair and (2) my inability to do anything successfully outside of academia was not-romantic-at-all, but still gritty, poverty, out of which I failed to rise because I also unearthed hidden skills at avoiding the monkeywork I had chosen to support my starving artistry. For a while I coasted on the inertia of doing nothing, having not yet realized that thinking about doing things does not count as action and pays badly. I drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes and thought a lot. The longer I lived there, the dirtier the apartment became, and the more I thought about cleaning it, but impulses toward cleaning ended quickly because I thought, “Why bother fixing up a dump? It’ll still be a dump.”
When even endless self-reflection bored me, I went to The Dusty Bookshelf, one of those used bookstores with aptly named towering dusty shelves and books crammed into corners and stacked on the floors. It had a resident cat unironically named Cornhole. There I found the book that changed my life: How to Want What You Have, by Timothy Miller. I bought it because I misread the title and thought it would show me how to make smoking and thinking produce results.
The book is out of print, but copies are still fairly easy to find. I used to have extra copies and just bought another one because I never got back the last one I “loaned.” I mention this because this book so fundamentally changed my spiritual vision, my mind’s eye, the focus in my rose-colored glasses. From this accidental purchase I discovered the concept of “enough.” I had had plenty of wanting “more” and even wanting “less” to make a point, followed by having “less” by lack of immediate choice, but “enough” made me close the book and think. Then I began to do.
I had enough money to buy cleaning supplies and do laundry. Then I was presentable enough to get a better job. Then I had enough money to get carefully chosen stuff for my living space that uplifted me. Week by week, I got more stuff and got rid of stuff I didn’t need and found the Goldilocks feeling of enough, just right. And then I didn’t need more.
Eventually circumstances conspired to make me move along in life and do things like get a job with benefits, buy health insurance, and start saving. I ended up running my own business and buying a house. I still live in the same house, because it is enough. I almost always get rid of something if I buy something, because I already have enough. There is an innate enoughness to which I have become finely attuned, and for that I am grateful. The constant longing for more is attributed to human suffering in more than one philosophical system, and not having enough to sustain existence, relative to one’s society, also causes suffering. But enough, as they say, is enough, and I still think fondly of the day I sat on my peeling linoleum, smoking and listening to my groaning refrigerator while I read about how to want those very things, and I found that—even though they were not in a trendy New York studio and I was not a best-selling novelist because of my lazy self-imposed suffering—it was enough.