Can You Ever Have Enough?
The greatest case of mistaken identity in modern America has involved the four markers of public success: money, fame, power, and status. These four things just may have been the most widely shared dreams and the most ardently pursued goals in the twentieth century. Yet, as an ancient philosopher might say, these things can make good servants, but very bad masters.
Money, fame, power, and status can be good and useful as resources, but they are very problematic as focal goals. When they are pursued as focal targets, the concept of "enough" can't get a grip at all. What amount of money is enough? Everyone I know who has little wants more. But it's even more interesting that everyone I know who has a lot wants even more.
The concept of enough is, of course, a relative concept. Any question of what would be enough begs the follow-up question "Enough for what?" And this just shows that the concept of enough applies only to things that are of instrumental value, valuable only insofar as they lead to or produce something else (something that itself either also has instrumental value, or else has intrinsic value, value in and of itself).
Put simply, the question of enough applies only to things that are in some sense resources. When money, fame, power, and status are viewed as resources, the question of enough does have application. Enough money is the amount of money it takes to complete a project, or pay off debts, or maintain a lifestyle. Enough power is the amount it takes to get a job done. Even fame and status can work this way. For an actor, enough fame is the amount that gets him invited to work in good movies for healthy fees, and then gets attention for his work. A certain level of status in a community can be judged enough for playing a particular role in community affairs, or for producing a certain degree of receptivity in people concerning a project or process that needs support.
Enough is a relative concept. More is absolute. There can always be more. And that's a problem for many people. We live in a very competitive culture, so we live in a culture of more. It's nearly heretical to suggest that bigger is not always better and faster is not always an improvement. I don't need a Ferrari to get me home from the grocery store. Ice cream doesn't melt that fast. How big should a company be? How powerful a computer do I need? Are there lines to be drawn? In a culture of more, it's often hard to see or set limits.
There are two different forms of dissatisfaction in human life. There is first the dissatisfaction of acquisition. This is when you're not satisfied with what you have. You want more stuff. More money. More power. A bigger house. Another house. A more luxurious car. Or a faster car.
The second form of dissatisfaction is the dissatisfaction of aspiration. This is when you are not satisfied with what you are, and want to become something better. You want to be wiser, to know more, to experience more, to develop more talents, to be a better person. You want to deepen yourself spiritually. You want to connect better with your world. You want to have a deeper impact for good on your children, on your community, or in your work. You aspire to a richer, more fulfilling being-in-the-world.
The dissatisfaction of acquisition feeds on itself in an almost cancerous way. The more you give in to it and try to satisfy it, the more it can grow, until it is literally out of control. There are people who can fully enjoy owning the new Mercedes convertible that they long lusted for only to the moment when that new red Ferrari pulls up beside them at a stoplight. The dissatisfaction of acquisition can become an unhealthy, impossible, tyrranical demand.
The dissatisfaction of aspiration can be quite different. Contentment is not supposed to be the same thing as apathy. Contentment is emotionally accepting your present as being what it is, without being filled with resentment, frustration, or irritation at anything you are undergoing. But that is thoroughly compatible with wanting the future to be quite different. You aspire to be better, or to accomplish more. You are not satisfied to stay where you are existentially, with no further growth, and no further effects for good on your world. You want to be and do more. This is the dissatisfaction of aspiration. It can be a very healthy goad to personal growth and fulfillment.
Is there a certain number of books, such that having read that many, you will have read enough? Is there a total number of ideas such that, having had that many new thoughts, you will be able to say "Enough, already"? Isn't personal growth and aspiration at least in principle open ended in a way that acquisition is not? I have enough tennis shoes. I have enough suits. I have enough computers. But, in the confines of this life, I'll never be wise enough. And that's no tragedy at all. I'm a joyful guy, but I'll never have my fill - I'll never be joyful enough. But don't feel sorry for me about that.
In fact, it is the materially well off among us who feel wise enough, but want much more stuff, who are living the philosophical tragedy of our times. To those men and women I want to say: Learn when enough is enough, and when it isn't. The external things that we accrue can be great resources for the inner journey we are on, as well as for making our outer mark on the world, if we have enough guidance along the way to know to know what it's worth to pursue.
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