How keeping up can hold us down

Enough is Enough

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

I very briefly nannied for a couple on the upper West Side of Manhattan—let’s call them Sarah and John. I once listened to them argue in front of me, in French, over the welfare of a child’s hat that had been purchased in Paris. 

It was maybe eight weeks after 9/11, and four weeks since I had been laid off from my job of six years in the publishing industry. The couple did not know I could almost understand them, and that I had ascertained that the hat in question probably cost the same as a day of my wages.

On another occasion, Sarah remarked to me that she and her husband “lived hand to mouth,” which she clarified by informing me that they had to “decide every summer whether to take the house on the Cape.” It may have been Nantucket that she said. Or maybe Martha’s Vineyard. In any case, these were people for whom occasionally not summering where they wintered was not enough—it was stressful. It took me a long time to understand how anyone could have so much and still feel as though they were just getting by. 

At the time, I didn’t get it. I had much less than they did, but I thought I had enough. I could choose to quit a job I hated or keep a low-paying job I loved. I paid $400 in rent, had no debt, no dependents, no medical issues and only one prized possession: a nice guitar. 

When I moved out of my tiny Brooklyn apartment a year later, I downsized. 

At the age of 29 I moved into a 150-square-foot cottage on a farm on the outskirts of Bethlehem, Pa., for a year of experimental living. I brought with me about 20 items of clothing, a handful of books, my guitar, a new boyfriend and a strong desire to start over. While I was there, I often thought about “enough.” 

Some of it was material. Did I have enough firewood brought in for the night? Enough whiskey in the cabinet to at least make it feel as if there was enough firewood?

The harder parts were mental. Did I have enough character to sunnily hold a temp job I hated while I tried to finish my second record? Enough equanimity to live with another human being in 150 square feet of space, settled in a strange and sparsely populated town? 

When you strip down your world, you get very clear about what it is that will not only help you to grow, but to bloom. It’s freedom.

As I think about so many people still held back from their own happiness by the trap of keeping up with the Joneses, I hear a vast sea of other “up” idioms: not just catching up, but moving up, upward mobility, upselling, and upscaling. In my mind, they all lead to one place: up to our necks, and then up to our ears in our desires and perceived shortcomings, finally drowning and giving our better selves over to the mythical sailor Davy Jones, death incarnate. He’s the only member of the Jones clan we’re actively trying to avoid. 

It’s heartening to hear about more and more people stopping that cycle and reflecting on tough questions that sit at the intersection of our personal “enough” and our world as a whole. Do we have enough energy to sustain our current lifestyle? Enough water? Is it what we want anyway? What are we willing to give up so that others down the street, or in far-flung places, have more? 

How much is enough?