When you hear the word “enough” does it sound like a reprimand, a sigh of repletion or a warning that it’s time to pack up and go?
When is enough enough? How do you know when you’re done?
I’m attracted to excess; it’s taken me an exorbitant amount of time to learn moderation.
I grew up in a family where you sat and ate until you couldn’t move. If after having spaghetti, bread, fish and eggplant you decided to skip the pork chops, people thought you were sick. They didn’t give you the benefit of the doubt; they would say, “You don’t like it? You'll never see it on the table again.” Any refusal to indulge in excess was seen as a form of withholding, and withholding was seen not only as a criticism but also as a form of betrayal.
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Just imagine how well this served me as a model for relationships. I thought the only way to do anything was to overdo it. I practiced hysteria the way other people practiced ballet or conversational French. Hysteria is tinged with a kind of ecstasy: You become so passionately engaged that you stand outside yourself. The trouble with standing outside yourself, however, is the worry that, if you go far enough, you might never get back in.
Believing my passionate, unbridled, unedited reactions to any kind of emotional incident meant that I was a deeply intricate and complex soul. It took me long years to realize I more or less couldn’t contain myself. I did everything except run through the darkness shouting “Heathcliff! Heathcliff!” into the storm.
And that was only because I didn’t date anybody named Heathcliff.
There were other names I yelled and wept while taking walks on rainy nights. Those poor souls had no idea that I had projected my vast, unfulfilled set of longings onto them. They thought that they had acquitted themselves nicely by being reasonably attentive boyfriends, kind, sweet and usually prompt at phoning.
But when you’re an emotional sieve, you can’t be filled up: A constant stream of whatever you desire will drain through the empty spaces and so will never be enough.
I thought I needed more, but I didn’t know what I needed more of, and I’m not sure I do even now. Satiety remains an elusive concept. It’s still hard for me to push back from a table if there’s a morsel of something I like left on a plate. I’m not hungry, but I'll go after a french fry like a seagull at a landfill. I remain the kind of person who, even at formal events, will ask my dining companion, “Are you going to finish that?”
A pervasive sense of needing more and more is increased by everything in our culture. An offer from QVC promising me a rice steamer that will change my diet, my way of life and my ability to deal with the world’s agro-business problems will create in me a need for a rice steamer. Or five.
Supremely knowledgeable advertisers construct this elaborate architecture of need: I don’t think members of Bedouin tribes wake up in the night thinking, “You know what we could use right now? A couple of stainless steel rice steamers.”
It’s certainly hard to know when you’ve had enough of pain, especially when the pain becomes familiar. We’ve all been in relationships, either personal or professional, that have gone on too long. When we’ve had the courage to end those relationships, it’s fascinating to decipher the moment we were able to grasp that “enough is enough.” Usually it’s only in retrospect that we’re able to distinguish the occasion from the cause.
My students worry about their futures. They’ve heard that there are no jobs, no apartments and nobody worth loving who is willing to love in return. I remind them that they only need one of each of these at a time: They only need one place to live, one place to work and one person who will greet them at the door of the place they call home.
“Enough” can be said with a smile of gratitude instead of through gritted teeth and a slammed door. One can be enough — and enough can be enough — when it’s right.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.
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