A Pandemic Gift: Stumbling Upon the ‘Good-Enough’ Life

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Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

The other day the local NPR affiliate, KUOW, was asking guests and listeners alike, “What are you missing during this time? And how are you replacing it?”

My thought was, “What about this time are you enjoying, and might you miss when it’s over?”

I’m enjoying lowered expectations. The day doesn’t have to be “full.” There is always time for a walk. I don’t feel that I need to be more “productive,” (though I understand many don’t have that luxury). Moreover, this lowering of the bar is required by this time, by “sheltering in place” and avoiding social contact. Options are fewer, closer to home. I’m biking, but not buying or building (which is I understand a problem). We’re keeping the trips we do make to a minimum, and often doing those by walking.

Of course, the more customary expression is the so-called “Revolution of Rising Expectations.” People need to expect more. Raise your expectations! Achieve greatness! Change the world!

My subversive thought is that large swaths of our society are not afflicted primarily by low expectations, so much as unrelenting, burdensomely high expectations.

There are a couple of ads for the PBS network that run regularly on KCTS. Each shows an adult and a child, sharing a moment. The punchline is, “BE MORE!” Just once, wouldn’t it be interesting to an adult and child to smile as the words “BE LESS” are intoned above them? It’s not likely in a world where the slogan on the Lowe’s Home Improvement store trucks says, “More of Everything!”

Last year I came upon an intriguing essay by the writer, Avram Alpert, which was the winning essay at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Philosophy Night in 2019. It was about the “good enough” life. Alpert makes the case that the pursuit of greatness is a problem not the solution. This thought is based on a view of life itself as “good enough,” not perfect or perfectible. Life means both joy and suffering, both experiencing nurture and experiencing frustration, and having the capacity to manage the harder stuff.

He mentions some less-dominant, less “greatness-obsessed” schools of thought that envision “the good life” differently. Like “Middle Path” Buddhism. “In this radical vision of the good-enough life, our task is not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good-enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.”

Striving for “good enough” does not mean being a slacker. But it is a different orientation than trying to be first or best or to win — or making sure that your kid does. Being good enough,” writes Alpert,” is not easy . . . to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.”

At least large swaths of our society are forever seeking more. Not just money, but experiences, status, ways to stand out or as we now say “virtue-signal,” as well as to get ahead. It’s the culture of “meritocracy.” The underlying idea is that the best win, and if you win or thrive it is not only your achievement but that to which you are entitled. “You deserve it!” It didn’t take a village.

From a Christian or theological point of view this is a world view without grace. It lacks the sense of either “there but for the grace of God, go I,” or of “the gift/grace element in life.” If grace is part of your world view, you recognize how much you have been given, not just how much you’ve done or deserve.

Alpert closes with a note about the implications of the “good-enough” life for the environment. “Achieving this will also require us to develop a good-enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.”

A part of the gift of this pandemic time is that we are experiencing limits — frontiers which America and Americans have generally pushed against, often in a pursuit of greatness (variously defined). But there can be grace, and greatness, in limits. Not every day can be, or has to be, full. Not every day has to be “great.” “Good enough” is just fine, not only right now, but maybe always.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “good enough” can make us feel very good these days. It can be joyful to realize this isn’t the time to worry about being perfect and super productive. It’s good enough to take a moment to watch rhododendrons bloom, and it’s good enough to give thanks for all we can still enjoy.

  2. Oh Tony, you always think of the darndest things to write. I’m always baffled by where these ideas come from. Motivation doesn’t come from just wanting more. It comes from dreaming what might be. You and I, we certainly have more than “enough”. Plenty of others don’t. “Virtue-signal”? Who says that? What does it mean, really? I’m just taking a wild stab at this, but isn’t a sermon a virtue-signal? Or someone who writes about what should be enough for someone else? Enough is enough. Try taking a nap.

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