How Much is Enough?

I was born 9 months before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the US into World War II. The development of the war-time industries needed to aggressively defend our nation actually served to pull the US economy out of the devastating depression of the 1930s. My earliest memories and experiences were shaped by the war-time culture and the attitudes of austerity and frugality. There were always shortages. There was never enough. It was much like the reaction of Scarlet O’Hara after the Civil War as she returned to Tara and declared that she would never be without things and money again . . . ever! 

When the war was over we entered some pretty heady times. The economy had rebounded. Industry and commerce were humming, and the girls and moms who had entered the work force while the men were away fighting simply stayed on at their jobs. Many of the returning military men headed to school to take advantage of the G. I. Bill of Rights and free tuition. I heard it repeated over and over by the grownups, “I will see to it that my kids have it better than we did.” 

It shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose, that the recent generations have never really concerned themselves with the concept of “How much is enough?” That’s not been the issue. The real issue seems to be “How much can I accumulate?” The kids, grandkids and great grandkids, indeed, have ended up with “more.” But I have yet to be convinced that they ended up “better off.” Our culture has tried to arbitrarily establish some guidelines for enough. When the child is eight years old he or she has had enough of the third grade and will move on with the peers whether the subject matter has been mastered or not . . . an eight year old has had enough of third grade. We set tax laws that say that when you work hard and earn a certain amount deemed “enough,” you will be punished and it will be taken away from you. When you eat too much your stomach can give you an acute warning of enough. But in a heartbeat the taste buds can trump the message and you can madly race on into obesity. 

Until I was nearly 30 years old I had never seriously considered, “How much is enough?” My sufficiency was more than adequate. My thoughts during those early years of austerity were that I would be a millionaire someday. By the time I was 30, I was sixteen times over that. It was then I realized that I was addicted to the game of accumulation. My idea of “how much was enough” was simple . . . enough was one dollar more and one more deal completed. It was then that Anna Marie and I decided that we needed to break that addiction, “cold turkey.” We gave away our accumulation of wealth and started over again. We did not take a vow of poverty or pledge to wear a hair shirt. We simply needed to break the addiction to the mindset of accumulation and realistically deal with the question of “How much is enough?” 

I have tried to become an attentive observer while traveling in the 150 countries I have visited over the past twenty-five years. I am intrigued by cultures where the people have historically dealt with the question of “enough.” And some of the sweetest words in the entire world are those words of personal responsibility that I am hearing from the lips of my own friends and the members of my own culture . . .“Yes . . . that’s enough!”