Friday, August 6, 2010

When is it enough? Searching for meaning

Eye by M. C. Escher (1946)

When you look back on your life and contemplate what you have accomplished, will it be enough?  Will you have achieved enough, done enough, been enough?  What is enough? 

These are the questions that plague me.  I have always struggled with the question of sufficiency (or what I might call "enoughness").  Am I smart enough?  Am I attractive enough?  Is my work good enough?  I sought evidence, some kind of standard against which I could determine my quality.  Unfortunately, there is no clear standard for "enoughness," because it depends on what one means by enough.  Enough for what, exactly?  Is my work good enough to pass the class is a different question from whether it is good enough to get the top grade.  The questions never get resolved for me because I don't know what I mean by enough.  I don't have some concrete goal or clear comparison that will provide a definitive answer for the question.  Essentially, this stands in for the existential question of my worth:  Am I good enough to justify my existence?

In Notre Dame des Neiges (Montreal)
By what metric do we judge the quality of a person's life?  This requires that we identify the purpose of life, a thorny question to be sure.  One of my colleagues believes that the meaning of our lives is to be found in the quality of our relationships with others -- we live to love and be loved.  Some have argued that we are meant to seek happiness: 
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy” --  Dalai Lama
Or perhaps not:  
"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.”  -- Dalai Lama
Maybe we are meant to fulfill our potential: 
"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'"  -- Erma Bombeck
Or perhaps we should savor our life and seek diverse experiences:
"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." -- Eleanor Roosevelt
Maybe it doesn't matter exactly what we pursue, as long as we have some goal: 

"The purpose of life is a life of purpose." -- Robert Byrne
But whatever life's purpose, whether love, happiness, service or savoring, we are still left with the question of what constitutes enough.  If you follow Erma Bombeck's guidance, how do you know if you have fully met your potential?  Did you produce your best work?  Were you your best self, or could you have been better? For Emerson, how much of a difference do we need to make to have lived well?  If we make a slight difference in only one person's life, is that sufficient?  Can Eleanor Roosevelt be sure that she has tasted her experience to the utmost?  Maybe she could have savored life more fully. 

I can list my achievements and contributions, but I don't know if they are enough.  Couldn't I have done more?  Surely I wasted time that could have been better spent.  Perhaps I should have spent more time with my students -- or maybe less time at work and more time with my family and friends.  Maybe I should have focused more on one pursuit, rather than trying to do so many different things.  How do I know if I have done enough?  I'm searching for a sense of inner certainty that would indicate that I am on the right track, but I find only doubt.  My only certainty arises from knowing that some accomplishment is definitely not enough.  Without the feeling of certainty, I search for some external metric that could answer the question.  I look to awards, accolades, affection, any of which might indicate success, but none of which tell me if I have done enough

Courtesy of Mark's Weblog
Maybe I'm not supposed to have the answer.  Maybe it's engaging with the question that matters.  After all, the open question could inspire further effort -- if I knew that I had done enough, I might get complacent and rest on my laurels.  My lingering doubt provides a driving sense of anxiety -- you're not done yet, do more, try harder, keep going -- the dire threat of failure, of a meaningless and unfulfilled life, lurking at every moment.   True, this worry is unpleasant, but perhaps it is useful.  I believe in the importance of  living an examined life, and unresolved questions keep the examination process ongoing.  

But perhaps the anxiety is merely a distraction.  Rather than being a goad to greater achievement, one could argue that these worries leach energy from my life's work.  I spend time dithering about whether I've done enough instead of just getting on with it.  What could I have gotten done with this time I've spent rambling on about my existential angst, for example?  If I could come to some zen-like peace with the question of my worth, would I really stop working, or would I be even more productive?   

It's a moot point, as I simply don't know how to dismiss the existential questions; I have no answers and I can't make the questions go away.  The existentialist and humanistic psychologists would argue that we all confront these issues -- we must face the inevitability of our death and the threat of meaninglessness as part of psychological growth.  It may be too much to ask for a definitive answer, but I could wish for a tentative one, some ballpark estimate of my life's cumulative worth as a crumb of comfort in the face of my mortality.  Instead I simply ride out the ebb and flow of doubt, presuming that I am doing things right (all the while fearing that I am not).  And I hope that, when I am at the end of my days, I will be satisfied with what I have made of of my life.  I suspect, though, that at least some degree of doubt will follow me always, as I cannot imagine myself disentangled from the uncertainty that permeates my existence. 

How about you?  How do you establish whether you have done enough?


  1. Leonardo Da Vinci's last words were: "I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have." To me, it's a shame he tortured himself like that on his deathbed.

    *You* decide what's enough. It is in your power to torture yourself, or spoil yourself, or to find some happy medium.

    Lower your standards, and your performance will rise.

    - An old, estranged friend

  2. Thank you for this, from a 25-year-old anonymous internet wayfarer who just happened to stop by because he Googled "maybe I'm not supposed to have the answer" to the exact question you ask.

    Thanks again.

  3. I can answer your question! "Yes" and "Not Yet." You must add visiting with me again to the list, you know! ; )

    For me, my faith has given me enormous liberation. I may have already fulfilled my purpose. Maybe it was that time I gave a homeless man the unimpressive content of my wallet ($3), touched his shoulder and said, "It gets better." He hadn't asked me for anything, he was just sitting - I was simply overwhelmed by the feeling I SHOULD do this.

    Maybe it was when I painted a certain picture or told a certain story or gave a certain hug. Maybe it's in progress. Maybe it's yet to be.

    I believe I am to keep being me, as God made me, as well as I can. Yes, I may have already fulfilled my purpose. Or maybe I haven't. Maybe I don't even have one. And it doesn't matter - because I cannot know. So...I don't even think about it. Though I do get frustrated at the gigantic gap between what's IN me to do and what I must do to support my family...and I keep working to close that gap, because that is what's IN me to do.

    Of course, what's IN YOU to do is wonder about such things, so....