Friends, I want to tell you the truth about what my life was like a few years ago. I was overwhelmed and overburdened, addicted to sugar and caffeine. Whenever I’m tempted to sugar-coat (pun intended) the exhaustion of that lifestyle, I remember this: I came down with shingles at the ripe old age of 23.
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This week it has come to my attention that almost everyone I know –myself included– has trouble knowing when enough is enough.
I’m not talking about the traditional addiction areas, like knowing when to stop eating or drinking or shopping. I’m talking about the more insidious ones, like productivity, or helping.
I’m not talking about the times when we have to step it up (like real emergencies, or situations wherein we’re called to love boldly and step out of our comfort zone.) I’m talking about treating our lives as ongoing emergencies, putting ourselves on-call 24/7.
Yet even for the most well-balanced among us, it can be difficult to know when we’ve done enough for others, for ourselves. It can be hard to rest in the sufficiency of a job well done, a day well lived…because we’re not sure where that point of ‘enough’ is.
It is impulse control, but not of the sort we usually think. It’s all about moving past the compulsion to prove oneself– to be more, do more, help more– and listening for the deeper guidance available to us. It’s about listening for the still small voice of sufficiency.
And listening for that voice makes us vulnerable. It makes us face up to all the things we’d rather ignore. Too often, we’d rather hide our hurt behind helping others than admit that we need help ourselves. Too often, we give from a place of emptiness.
I myself ask these questions:
- What if, instead of trying harder to be a good friend to someone I know, I got honest and said, “It hurts me when we repeat this pattern: you say you miss me, we start to make plans, and then you never call me back”?
- What if, instead of pushing through 12-hour workdays (wherein I come home tired beyond tired), I committed to caring for my health and refused to over-schedule?
- What if, instead of trying to drown out what I’m feeling with overwork, I chose to receive what I feel?
It’s tough love — for myself and for you– that leads me to write this post. And it’s that love that makes me think of my friend Kevin*, and what he’s taught me about sufficiency.
Kevin is a man with a sunny disposition. His vocabulary is limited, but his face communicates his thoughts exquisitely. If he’s excited, he rarely needs words; it’s all written on his face. (We have this in common.) He lives at L’Arche, so I’ve known him for the past 5 years.
One of the things I like best about Kevin is the lack of pretense. If he’s not interested in something, he’ll walk away or turn his attention elsewhere. And when he cares for someone– when he picks up your plate or pats your head– you can tell it’s coming straight from the heart. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the desire to impress others. He simply is who he is.
When I think of sufficiency, a specific memory of Kevin enters my mind. It answers the question I implied earlier: How do we know when we’ve done enough, said enough, contributed enough?
To give context for this answer: at L’Arche, we celebrate each person’s birthday, anniversary and farewell. In the anniversary celebration liturgy, we anoint and bless one another with water. We gently lay our hands on the person’s head, hands, feet.
What I remember is this: Kevin putting his hands on my head and blessing me, his touch filling my spirit.
For perfectionists like me, anointing can be disconcerting. How long do you let your hand linger in blessing? How much water do you use? (Several of our members take delight in purposefully using too much.) And most of all, how do you know that you’ve really blessed someone?
As such, I’ve come to see the anointing ceremony as a metaphor for life, a way of discovering sufficiency.
First: sufficiency isn’t in the gesture alone. The touch is important, but it’s not everything. Two people may make exactly the same gesture, and it may result in two completely different feelings within the person being anointed.
Sufficiency requires quietness of spirit and humility of heart. When Kevin anoints me, I can feel the love in his movements. He takes his time. He doesn’t rush. His hands on my head are gentle, yet purposeful. He bows his head over mine and prays silently. He treats me with respect and kindness. And then he returns to his seat, and I am amazed at the beauty all around me.
Really, the secret of sufficiency and the secret of success are one and the same. Both arise from an internal compass, from an inchoate knowing. They cannot be predetermined. They must be lived moment-by moment, in the grace of the now.
As Wayne Muller writes in his book, A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough, “There are two kinds of compassion and care. One is honest kindness, and the other, dishonest kindness. How many times have we promised, or pretended to be available, to listen, to care, when, in that moment, we honestly had no such capacity? And do we imagine that dishonest kindness actually brings healing and ease to another– or do we seed an unintended suffering?”
Kevin lives a life of honest kindness. And with his help, I’m learning, slowly, to do the same.
What does honest kindness translate to in your life? One day, it might mean scheduling your fun stuff in addition to your work stuff. On another day, it might mean taking a nap rather than returning phone calls. On another, it might mean listening instead of trying to fix, or loving rather than trying to control.
The secret of enough is found in making a believe shift from fear to faith.
How do you arrive at a sense of sufficiency? Tell me in the comments!
All commenters on this post will be entered to win a free copy of
“A Good & Perfect Gift” by Amy Julia Becker**. It’s a new book that explores
question of sufficiency, disability and faith beautifully.
If you desire to move toward sufficiency—to ground yourself and grow in relationship— you’ll want to get on the advanced notification list for the new book I’ll be publishing this winter (which will be offered at a 50% discount ONLY for those on the pre-sale list).
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*All names have been changed.
**”A GOOD AND PERFECT GIFT is more than just a narrative that spans the first two years of Amy Julia Becker’s new life with Down syndrome. From the initial dark moments in the hospital to the light and laughter Penny brought into the family, it is a story of a remarkable little girl who surpassed expectations. It is the story of a young couple coming to terms with their first-born child being different than they anticipated, and eventually receiving that child as a precious gift. It should appeal to any reader who wonders how grief can be transformed into joy.”
First, thank you to all the new subscribers — I’m glad you’re here! It’s been an amazing week– seeing over 1,300 visits to the site after the guest post at Be More with Less was very encouraging for me.
As such, I’ve been thinking about success, and about what it means to be successful. I find within myself a tendency to equate success with grand gestures and sweeping achievements (or lots of hits on a website!) At times I fall into the trap of thinking that the formula for a successful (work)day looks like this:
Q (quantity of tasks accomplished) x P (pace at which tasks are completed) + E (exhaustion pushed past) = S (successful day)
What’s wrong with this equation? A surfeit of tasks, times speed, plus exhaustion…equals success? Only if you define success as doing violence to your natural rhythms and ignoring your inherent limits.
For another version of success, I turn to someone who surpasses me in age and wisdom: my friend and former L’Arche housemate, Cassandra*.
Once, when I asked Cassandra how her day was, she paused for consideration and said, “It was…successful.”
The candor and contentment in her voice took me by surprise. At the time, I couldn’t imagine making the same statement, for fear of sounding too proud. Yet there was no arrogance in Cassandra’s voice. There was simply a straightforward statement of sufficiency and fact.
Of course, I asked her, “What did you do today?”
She replied that she’d done some art, wrote some sentences, and talked to people. While I don’t think she meant her words to be a predetermined outline, I think there’s wisdom in the three things she chose to do on her ‘successful’ day.
Doing some art: For Cassandra, art is relaxing. She gravitates toward the ‘ark desk’ without prompting. She can spend long periods of time at the desk, bent over a piece of construction paper, happily absorbed in her drawing.
What’s your ‘home base’, the fail-safe, smile-sparking activity that makes time disappear for you? It could be something as simple as hopscotch in the park with your kids or as complex as weaving on a loom. Get some playtime in your day.
Writing some sentences: Writing is more of a challenge for Cassandra, but it’s a task she relishes. She practices every day, and her pages tell fascinating (if cryptic) stories. She writes fiction, non-fiction, and writing that defies categorization. (My favorite composition reads: “I went to a puminekin paninch /15 t 47 St / Im beween the rope or stringe / I stay up erely in the moneing”)
What step can you take in the direction of your dreams? What work can you dedicate yourself to with enthusiasm? Undertake a compelling challenge…
And yes, it helps to play first. (If you’re anything like me, you skipped over that first one.) Go back! Get out your sidewalk chalk! Your work will thank you– you’ll bring fresh eyes and a brighter spirit to your tasks.
Talking to people: Cassandra is an introvert. She is fond of long silences, and it takes time to get to know her well. However, she is also a consummate expert when it comes to talking to people and asking them for what she wants. How does she do it? She makes people feel special. She looks into their eyes and holds their hands. She asks them to take her out to tea. She is difficult to resist because she truly wants to spend time with them, to see the world with them.
Once you’ve played and worked in ways that feel right to you, who can you reach out to? Who do you want to spend time with and see the world with? Give someone your undivided attention.
Here’s the new equation for success, according to Cassandra:
P (play you delight in) + W (work you care about) + C (connecting with people) = S (successful day)
As such, I leave you with a quote from Wayne Muller’s The Art of Being, Having and Doing Enough (highly recommended):
“…tiny choice points arise hundreds of times every day. They are small, humble, tender things….Each choice we make that feels reliable and true produces a sense of being and having enough in this moment. A life made of such moments, strung together as pearls on a necklace, can become…a surprisingly elegant and beautiful journey of deep contentment and sufficiency.”
This passage makes me think of Cassandra, wearing her pearl necklace and living her life, one ‘successful’ day at a time.
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*Names have been changed.