I am. We are.
That is enough.
Now we have to start
So begins Ernst’s Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia as he sets out to re-imagine Western history as a series of disruptions in which philosophy, traditions and art provide the momentum for further disruptions, for becoming a different story.
Being enough in dark times
To have the courage and integrity to write what is disruptive is vital in a world crying out for new stories. But we can only do so if we are not driving ourselves wayward with constant thoughts that we are not ‘enough’. This is not to say that we should be smug and self-satisfied or that we should stop pushing our boundaries as writers. But all too often what the world expects and values is the quantitative endeavour of self-optimisation rather than deep internal work that leads to insight and transformation.
There’s a whole noisy world of apparent self-improvement all around us: books and websites, social media, magazines, bill-boards and cults… All are more than ready to distract us and make us feel less than ‘enough’ because when we are in a state of feeling that we are lacking we are so much more susceptible, whether to a sales pitch or manipulation of our ideas. And listening makes us forget what truly matters. It makes us forget that the most meaningful things in life are not the things we can weigh and measure. And that we don’t have to gauge our worthiness in ways that reduce and commodify our humanity.
So often, the epiphanies about what most matters in our lives come at dark times and, a year into a pandemic, many of us have taken time to rethink notions of what it means to have and do and be enough in a challenging world. Many of us have have realised that it’s not the bank balance or the gloss of success (however defined) or the number of followers on Twitter that count, but the people we love, the earth we inhabit, the values we live by that bring meaning.
The rest is noise and distraction from deep internal work, the kind that enables us to be generous to ourselves and others. Because as long as we stay feeling ‘not enough’ and ‘unworthy’, we stay prey to being no more than passive consumers of life, buying into the next product or lifestyle trend that will convince us once again that we’re not quite…
Being enough despite the narrative of unworthiness
This existential abyss of unworthiness is nothing new. In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach notes:
Feeling that something is wrong with me is the invisible and toxic gas I am always breathing. When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.
And despite being commonplace, the feeling of being not enough often feels like a something that afflicts us uniquely, leaving us open to those who will sell us cures and charms, that work until they wear off and we need the next improvement. Because such improvements are never truly meant to help us do deep work but only to distract us from realising that we could draw a line under all of this at any time and declare: Enough.
But to feel that we are enough, that this life is enough, however flawed, requires not measurements and froth and 20-day life changing programmes, but the steady steps of facing the internal darkness with compassion. To live and write from a centre that we constantly recalibrate without self-denigrating or self-loathing takes honesty, humility. Being able to face our shadows as well as our light with equal kindness is the beginning of knowing that who we are and what we create can be enough.
Being enough together
The writing life can be a lonely one. And the steps to feeling we are equal to and enough for that life require a lot of internal time. Yet however much we feel that our flaws and falling short are unique, we can be certain that every other writer with integrity will be facing very similar demons.
Internal work isn’t about disengaging, cutting off our connections or feeling that we have to become ‘self sufficient’. Ultimately, we all depend on one another and on all of life. Self-sufficiency is a pernicious illusion and the aim of our self-compassion and finding ways to believe that we are enough is not to bolster our egos but to make us sufficiently resilient to have the same compassion for others.
When we are not mired in feeling unworthy to write or even to take up space, when we begin to feel ‘enough’ then we can push beyond the self. An abundant life is found by slowing down, paying deep attention and connecting internally, but also paying deep attention to and with those around us and the places we dwell in, in a spirit of radical generosity.
Over Christmas last year I read Rowan Williams’ The Way of St Benedict. It’s a book that left me with a lot of questions and reservations, but I was interested in the idea of how much we need community and how vital it is in any community that we learn to live with ‘the other’. Moreover, how community only functions well when it allows its members to grow without having to constantly self-justify or redefine themselves. For this to happen Williams considers that a community needs honesty, peace and accountability.
By honesty he means letting go of delusions and fictions that make us not enough, but ‘less than’ — fictions that include feeling we’re always the victim or, conversely, that we have all the time in the world. The honesty to realise we are mortal, fallible and at risk. The honesty to own that we are not always bright and shiny, that sometimes we are broken or bewildered or accept a sense of false peace (pretending all is well) becasue we can’t face the alternative.
Real peace then is not simply smiling agreement while screaming ‘no’ inside but an imaginative engagement with others, that resists resentments; a peace that is the currency of honesty and is rooted in accountability: the integrity to offer our individuality as gifts to others rather than at the expense of others so that together we grow and understand our humanity more fully.
Such a community is clearly aspirational and a constant work in progress, but its utopic vision is one that undercuts ideas of having to go it alone, be self-sufficient. And, perhaps even more radically, it exposes ideas that we are worthy and ‘not enough’ as bad fictions of ego. We don’t have to protect our egos by hiding in a murky cave of self-denigration. We don’t have to be perfect and have all the answers to make a difference to life, whether in our daily actions or our writing.
Being enough in abundance
Abundance is the art of knowing when there is enough.
Kurt Vonnegut expressed this brilliantly in his poem. ‘Joe Heller’
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!
The gift and beauty of having and being ‘enough’ is that we focus on the small bounties and pleasures of life. We focus on the extraordinary in ordinary daily events and objects. And we focus on people who enrich our existence. We’re not too busy or too over-wrought to notice. Instead, we celebrate and feel gratitude, which is enormously liberating for the flow of the creative life.
The poet and essayist Wendell Berry expresses it exquisitely in ‘The Peace of Wild Things’
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
To transform our stories, we must:
Slow down, listen, connect — it is enough
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses here on the site as well as online courses of different lengths here. While you’re browsing, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.
Carolyn O'Connell says
Very true and perspective Jan I love the two poems that you have put into the blog for they encapsulate everything that you say and we should take on.
Thank you Carolyn — they are both such wonderful pieces of work
Marina Sanchez says
Heartfelt thank you, Jan, for your compassionate perspective on facing ourselves with honesty and humility.
I am copying in my writing book the last paragraph of the Being Enough Despite the Narrative of unworthiness’ section, brilliant!
Thank you for your big hearted perspective and your generosity in sharing it with us.
Thank you so much, Marina
It’s wonderful when something resonates in this way.