Never Enough

Remember when I posted about reading that book about vulnerability? I stopped reading it the next day. Yup. You read that right: It was too much and I gave up.

Well, at least for a little while. I needed time to mull over what I had read and let it sink in. If I want to attain lifelong growth from reading this book, I can’t read it in one sitting and expect my life to change immediately. No, it takes more time than that.

So after that first excursion, I decided that two of the nonfiction books I’m reading this year I’m going to read often in small bursts: First is the Sefer Yetzirah, which I’ve been reading one verse at a time, because unpacking each verse when it’s literally steeped in thousands of years of mystical philosophy demands a slow yet attentive reading schedule, and second is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. The vulnerability book.

The first chapter (what I read last time was only the introduction) speaks about scarcity: the pervasive cultural mindset that we never have enough, or rather, that we focus almost exhaustively on the things we lack, not the things we have.

A poignant example she gave spoke directly to me: We wake up every day and the first thought we have is “I didn’t get enough sleep,” and we go to bed each night thinking off all the things we didn’t get done. That has literally been my life as long as I’ve lived it.

She also talks about how this culture of scarcity piles shame atop living a life that’s ordinary: we all wish to be extraordinary, she says, and falling short of that induces feelings of shame (that lead to feelings of anger and narcissism and on and on). It made me think of a bit from The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien that I read last night: Frodo and Sam are steadily climbing into the dark mountains surrounding Mordor, and Sam wonders if one day they’ll be written into songs or if their journeys will be forgotten. Frodo reminds him the heroes of old were never those who set out seeking adventure; rather, they were those thrust upon the venture by forces beyond their own, and in particular, the heroes were those who made it. Frodo and Sam remind us that there were many who tried, but failed along the way, and their tales have all been forgotten.

I sat silently for a moment, setting the book down, marveling first at how meta that whole passage had become (not only at the time it was written, but in the life the story has taken on since its inception), and then feeling the weight of it upon me: Is my tale one of victory and conquest that shall be remembered, or is it one of failure destined to be forgotten? I am not a man of small ambitions, and I have readily written how I wish to change the world, but does that yearning to be influential lead me along a path of eventual ruin, in which I will look back upon my days and regret that I too shall be lost in death, never to be remembered, never having made the impact I wished to make?

Some may say, as a blogger (with a large number of subscribers, but an unclear number of regular readers), and as a teacher (with more than 200 hundred students having already passed beyond my care), that certainly I have had influence, and in some small if yet still meaningful ways I have changed the world already, but then the darker part of my mind laughs and reminds me how small and insignificant I still am. Even if my readership were steady, it says nothing of all the stories I wish to see in print and popular, on the shelves of bookstores and libraries, in the hands of young children being inspired by reading it the first time and adults captivated by the complexity of the tale.

And though I stand before my students every day, though surely I have had a positive impact upon some of them, what of those who left the school? Or those I couldn’t reach? Or those who will enter my classroom tomorrow with troubles I cannot assuage?

Brene asks us to identify our illusionary scarcity by completing the sentence

I am never _________ enough.

and every time I tried to fill it in, I felt shallower and shallower: I am never attractive enough. Handsome enough. Fit enough. Sexy enough. “Not-bald” enough.

All those are purely physical, outward manifestations of myself, however, and I tried to dig past the magazine-cover induced self-loathing every person alive now feels to find something more meaningful, more vulnerable: I’m never organized enough. Never successful enough. Never social enough. Never smart enough. Never exciting enough.

Every negative feeling I have ever had seems to come down to some perceived element that’s lacking in my life, that’s lacking in myself. Whether it’s the time management I need to fully plan out my work week without taking up my weekend time, whether it’s the just-slightly-too-empty wallet that demands I stay in rather than going out one more time, the inadequate feeling I have when listening to my friends talk about their travels, their exploits, their five days at the gym, their pay raises, their romances….

I’ve always thought of myself as selfless, putting the needs of others before my own, but now I wonder if that shield of self-sacrifice has truly been sincere, or if I prop myself up with the story of constantly serving others to excuse all the deficiencies in my own life.

As a reader you will never know the minutes that passed in silence after I wrote that last paragraph and sat staring at the screen as if I had at last stumbled upon some haunting self-revelation that illuminated parts of myself I had never seen before.

In fact, that’s precisely what happened.

My fingers move faster than I can think sometimes, and letting my hands do the talking, my mind forgets when to throw up walls–and when it does, and these things break past, it’s like I’ve been sitting opposite a therapist, discovering my diagnosis for the first time.

Which again is why I need to take this book slowly, to allow myself the time I need to reflect and discover and make sense of what’s going on inside me. When I don’t listen to myself, when I listen mainly to others, I forget what I have and focus only on the things that I lack: the relationships, the skills, the looks, the money, the extraordinary life.

But when I sit back and allow myself to turn inward, to look at the things I’ve actually got, I’m a little happier, and a little more content, and a little less ashamed of all the things I’m not. And maybe, just maybe, I begin to feel like I’m enough.

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