Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Finding Enough

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
~Ecclesiastes 5:10 

At what point do I have “enough?”

In my journey to discover contentment in a deeper way, this is a question I keep running up against. What defines “enough” for me, and what does that look like on a practical level? 

Trying to address this issue is hard for me, because aside from a brief stint in my teenaged years, I’ve never spent much money on material goods. I don’t try to “keep up with the Joneses” in obvious ways. I’d rather run my shoes into the ground than get a new pair. I make do without, and would rather think about buying stuff than actually buy it. I’m a utilitarian at heart— I don’t enjoy owning things, only using them.

As such, I don’t often identify with blogs about materialism or greed because they don’t specifically address the way I feel about material goods. A couple years back I learned that I have a strange brand of materialism— I defined myself by what I didn’t buy instead of what I did, thus drawing my identity from stuff. I’ve been keeping an eye on that part of my personality, but in my journey toward greater contentment, I realized that a more normal, straightforward kind of attitude about material goods is so deeply ingrained in me that it took me this long to notice it.

As I was talking about in my previous blog post, the root of this issue is comparing what is to what should be— and letting cultural norms define what should be looks like.

For example, for a long time whenever people would ask if I was buying such-and-such expensive thing, I’d just laugh and say, “No, we’re poor!” Or, when we moved into our 830-square-foot house, I battled feeling like we didn’t have enough space because the house was smaller than “normal.” I’ll often look at something I want to buy and think, with a martyred sort of attitude, “We can’t afford that.” 

Buying the house was one of my first wake-up calls— I was shocked by how pouty I felt, even though it was obvious that this was an awesome house we were blessed to own and my standard was completely arbitrary. It’s uncomfortable to feel greedy emotions when your logical side can clearly see that you’re being ridiculous. But it’s a good sort of uncomfortable. It makes you think.

And so I cycled back to the question of “What is enough?” This is where it gets tricky, because everyone has a different definition. Is “enough” being able to pay your bills without draining your bank account? Is it having enough cash to visit the doctor for a check-up every other year? Enough so that you can buy a new couch or take that cruise you’ve been talking about for ten years? Does “enough” mean that you can afford a smartphone, organic tomato sauce, medical insurance, takeout pizza every Friday, a trip to visit your family in Oregon, a root canal for the tooth that’s rotting out of your head, a cup of nice coffee, a date at the dollar theater, a set of matching dishes, more than two pairs of jeans, a remodel of the moldy bathroom, Christmas presents for everyone, craft beer, nice athletic shoes, a set of essential oils, a Coach purse? 

The answer is different for everyone, and in thinking about this question, it’s essential to focus on ourselves instead of judging other people. The moment you start dragging other people into this problem, you’re grappling with that fantasy “should be” world again, which is less than helpful. Forget about other people— what is enough for you?

As a North American with no debt and a steady source of income, I began to realize that I was telling myself an untrue story by thinking of myself as “poor” compared to other people. Zach and I are low-income by North American standards, but we are definitely not poor. We live happily, and quite comfortably, on our income. I realized that my vocabulary and my perspective had to radically change.

Here are some practical steps I’ve been taking to find “enough” in my life.

Say “I’d like” instead of “I need.”
This one is harder than I thought it would be. Usually I use the phrase offhandedly— “I need another pair of jeans.” “I need to pick up some milk.”— or humorously— “I need a phone like that!” “I need a vacation!” But words subtly shape our thoughts, and this is no exception. Your brain moves nonessential things from wants to needs, and that creates a mindset that is not suited to contentment. Changing my vocabulary is very important: saying “I’d like” instead of “I need,” even for items that seemed perfectly normal to “need,” such as eggs, another bookshelf, or a pair of tennis shoes to replace my broken ones, is powerful.

Treat everything like a luxury.
I’m honestly not sure how well this would work across the board, but for me personally, it’s been a game-changer. It happened pretty naturally after we got off the PCT— after five months of living with only food, water, basic shelter, and one set of clothes, I became extremely grateful for running water, chairs, fried food, and a host of other luxuries that I took for granted before. Whenever it rains (especially when said rain gets in the way of plans I’ve made), I try to always say, “I’m so glad I’m not hiking in this,” or “I’m so glad I have a roof instead of a tent over my head right now.” Drawing my attention to this simple contrast helps me to remember the luxury that I live in every day.

Cultivate gratitude.
Yes, you know. Everyone says this. Gratitude is the cure for greed, “Create an attitude of gratitude,” other corny sayings, etc. etc. But it’s a cliché for a reason. When I was struggling with depression over the winter, I took a walk along the river almost every day and wrote down what I saw that was interesting or beautiful (“Today, a cold breeze stirred the frozen sand, blowing the grains like a tiny desert storm”). Every day, I’d read over my previous entries and remember what I had seen each day. Again, a gratitude journal sounds trite, but noticing the little things you’re thankful for really does start to shape your perspective over time.

Change your definition of “enough” to fit what you already have.
Honestly, not everyone has the basics they need. But the vast majority of North Americans, myself included, can look around themselves and see that they have enough. More than enough. I have beans and rice in my pantry, books on my shelves, a nice walking trail nearby, a roof that doesn’t leak, friends and family, a dresser full of clothes, a jar full of change. Right here, right now, without changing anything, is enough. The key to this shift in perspective, though, is truly believing this on a gut level. It takes practice and determination. But this new view on life is definitely worth the work.

For me personally, this year has been an exercising in learning that I really do have everything I need, and so much more! This practical contentment has made me feel much more rooted and solid, not to mention more grateful— not only for my possessions, but for my life in general.


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