Why a simple pause can be enough
Discovering what is enough in life is something we’re all getting used to, but five days of careful living can teach us much more than simply economics, writes ROÍSÍN INGLE
A LITERARY ANECDOTE goes that when Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22,was told at a party that a fund manager in attendance had made more that day than he had earned from all his books combined, Heller replied: “Then I have something he will never have. Enough.”
But what exactly is enough? That’s a question Anne Ryan, a lecturer in adult and community education at NUI Maynooth, has spent the past 10 years pondering. “We tend to be overloaded with expectations, information, people, decisions, choices and time demands,” she says. “The overall effect is to make us feel emotionally overloaded, because we end up feeling that we are not good enough or not coping well with all the demands. Exploring the concept of enough is about asking questions of ourselves, what do we really need, what can we do without? What in every area of our lives is really enough?”
It’s an ancient idea, enoughonomics. The bible says “give me neither poverty nor weath” the Greeks talked about the “golden mean” while Eastern philosophies offer endless masterclasses on the subject. When she first came across the notion 10 years ago, Ryan was struggling to cope with an overwhelming amount of freelance work and study commitments. “At the time I wasn’t coping well with the load, then I read an article which mentioned a book called Your Money or Your Life.That book was my first introduction to ‘enough’ and it gave me a whole new perspective on the way I was running my life. It just resonated with me in terms of my own struggle for balance and well-being.”
She began by prioritising. “I wasn’t making a whole lot of money even though I was working very hard, so I started calculating how much it cost me to live, how I was spending my money, whether all of that fitted with the kind of person I wanted to be. I was looking at money, time, social commitments, possessions and it all grew from there.”
The essence of “enough”, she says, is about empowering people to get what they need from the world without taking too much from individuals, society or nature. “The big question is whether your consumption is in line with your personal values, when you start exploring that you really get to the heart of enough,” she says
Ryan started looking at the idea of enough at the beginning of the boom at a time when enough was not a word heard on the lips of most developers or bankers in this country.
“The enough principles are needed in both boom and recessionary times,” she says. “The problems we are experiencing now came from a complete lack of awareness of enough. People got carried away because there were no limits set on growth. Ireland did misery very well for a long time, then in the Celtic Tiger years we did excess very well and now I am hoping that as more and more people start to see it as a valid path, this might be the decade of enough,” she says. As she got deeper into her research, she began to look at how the concept wasn’t just confined to her personal life. In her book Enough is Plenty, published in 2009, she writes about “sustainable societies” and more radical enough principles such as the citizen’s income, which would be a wage paid to every citizen regardless of whether or not they were in employment. “Richness would reside in the security of always having enough,” she writes.
At the moment Ryan is engaged in “research conversations” with people all over the world who have contacted her through her website enoughisplenty.net. “We are discussing how in their public and private lives they find ways to put enough into practice . . . the conversation is about using ‘enough’ to cope and survive in the present, and on a wider level it’s about using the concept to critique social, personal, political and economic issues we view as being wrong.”
For Ryan the process has been liberating. “I am not saying I lead a totally balanced life but I don’t feel overwhelmed. I have the question of ‘what is enough?’ in my head all the time. It allows me to take a break between tasks, to not always be looking for perfection, to understand that ‘good enough’ is still a high standard.
“Embracing the beauty of enough is a countercultural idea because modern English has downgraded its meaning, equating the word enough with poverty and mediocrity. But in Irish, the phrase go leor has a dual meaning: enough and plenty. It is time we restored that understanding of enough,” she says.
Anne B Ryan’s book Enough is Plenty: Public and Private Policies for the 21st Centuryis published by O Books
LIVING WITH ENOUGH: ROÍSÍN INGLE'S FIVE-DAY DIARY
DAY 1 Small steps
Anne Ryan, my “enough’ mentor” for the five days, sends me a long list of tips for life with enough. I’ve picked the worst week to put them into practice. I’m facing into a busy five days and am just getting over a throat infection. I feel overwhelmed by deadlines and domestic issues. Actually, it’s probably a good week then, Anne says when I call. Secretly I was hoping she’d tell me to do it another time.
She asks me about the areas where I felt I was overwhelmed and not achieving balance. We identify some areas – work, exercise, relationships, food – where I could use some guidance and she gives me tasks for each day. She tells me that the most important thing is to keep the question of “what is good enough here?” in my mind all the time.
My task today is to get back on my bike. It’s been languishing outside for months and as I don’t drive I’ve been taking public transport, which means barely any exercise. I bring the bike down to the local repair shop for a service. Walking home I feel lighter.
What is good enough here?Making a small step towards something that will change my lifestyle for the better.
DAY 2 Limit spending
Today I am going to explore how much money is enough. I’ve made sandwiches for lunch, fired up a flask of coffee, left my ATM card at home and I have the grand sum of €2 in my pocket. I notice immediately that because I’ve put a figure on what I intend to spend I am already more mindful. I go to the work canteen thinking I will spend it on a scone and then realise I don’t want to waste my €2 that way. My other task today is “mindful eating” which means not just scoffing my homemade sambos at the desk.
The enough principle underpinning this is that with the many distractions of modern life, we often behave in ways that are not consistent with what we really want, need or value. “We are often trying to multi-task, even while eating and this distracts us from recognising when we have eaten enough,” Ryan says. Bad news: I accidentally scoff my sandwich at my desk. Good news: I still have the €2 in my pocket when I get home.
What is good enough here?The unexpected joy of staying within a financial limit.
DAY 3 Creative pause
I collect the bike and cycle into work for the first time in ages. The day goes downhill from there. I am supposed to be “avoiding the electronic leash”, which is all very well except I am facing into the day from hell, which will mostly involve sitting at a computer.
Ryan says for this exercise I should check emails and texts only twice today. “Constant availability and being on the electronic leash is a distraction, it stops us focusing on what is really important.”
I lose count of how many times I check my emails and look at my phone. The day spirals out of control. At one point I feel like calling Anne for an intervention. Instead I sit, as she has suggested, for five minutes, using those “moments of stillness” to renew my depleted energy. It works. When I finally get home I take the laptop and radio out of the bedroom and resist zoning out to Mad Men. Instead I lie on the bed in deep reflection and . . . sorry . . . but I can’t remember what happened next.
What is good enough here?A few minutes of silence in a chaotic day
DAY 4 Unproductive time
Ryan has suggested I arrive deliberately early for an appointment to explore the enough principles around “unproductive time”. I get there 45 minutes early, turn off my phone and put my notebook away. “Time spent apparently doing nothing is essential for creativity and to restore energy,” she says.
I sit staring into space or people-watching for a good half hour. At first I am fidgety – I should be doing something – but then I start to enjoy the freedom of not doing anything at all. I have three good ideas while I’m staring into space.
What is good enough here?Making plans to do nothing and sticking to them
DAY 5 Scheduled silence
For my final “enough” day Ryan has set me a task to help me spend more quality time with my boyfriend. I tell her it sometimes feels as though we are running a business together – a housing, childcare, financial, meal-planning business – instead of having a relationship.
She suggests scheduling time to sit in companionable silence. “We are often made to think that we should be having meaningful conversations with our partners, but that can be too high an expectation every day,” she says. Our companionable silence very quickly turns into a heated discussion about the state of the house until I remember to ask myself “what is good enough here?”
I steer the chat towards happier shores, the small goals that we feel we are accomplishing, the laughs we had on a recent night out. Calmness and companionable silence descends.
What is good enough here?Sometimes just asking the question is good enough.