Before I made the decision to retire a few years ago, I began to pay more attention to the drumbeat of business articles warning baby boomers about the savings deficit that loomed in their future. The question the financial experts always posed was: Will you have enough when you retire?
By “enough,” they meant enough money to maintain one’s current, presumably comfortable, lifestyle, especially since baby boomers are told that we will live longer than any generation before us.
But the word “enough” also got me thinking about how we define that concept, and whether—in the competitive, status-conscious society we live in—we can ever be satisfied with what we have or achieve. The goal for many is always to strive for more. Success seems measured by the ability to outstrip others.
I know that drive all too well. As a Girl Scout, I pushed myself to sell more cookies than anyone else in my group—not to bring in money for the team, but simply to outperform the other girls. In high school, I remember shopping trips with certain friends devoted to buying the latest pair of Pappagallo shoes before others in our crowd did. I never liked Pappagallos, but it didn’t matter: I was in it for the race, not the shoes. As a parent, during high-school fundraising telethons, I tried to outdo other parents in the amount of money raised. The fundraiser was a good cause, but in my mind, it was also a contest.
The distinction between getting more and having enough crystallized for me a few months ago when I was cleaning out an overstuffed file cabinet. Stuck in the back was a 1992 Wall Street Journal interview with
in which the novelist railed against what he considered a spiritual emptiness at the core of American life. The number of “already very rich men who were willing to commit crimes during the 1980s to get even richer proved there was no enough,” he said. “Maybe that’s one of the words Americans have a very hard time learning: the word ‘enough.’ ”
It has taken me most of a lifetime, but I may finally have learned the lesson Updike was talking about. Instead of driving for “more,” I find myself accepting, with a sense of relief, that I have “enough.” Age is one obvious reason. When I was younger, I tried to be more flexible in exercise class than others nearby, or lift heavier weights than the person next to me in the gym. I can no longer compete like that. Now for exercise I aim for some combination of walking, riding a stationary bike or swimming. Well-being, not superfitness, is enough.
As a parent, too, my perspective has changed. Constantly bombarded with horrific images of an unstable world, what I want now is to know that my sons are safe in whatever city, airport, train station, nightclub or restaurant they are in, and to know that they are launched on their own paths, finding their own passions, setting their own goals. That’s enough.
As a writer and editor, I did a full 180-degree turn from covering the business world to writing a book for a less-heralded, and definitely less prestigious, audience—middle-school children. Acting on a long fascination with honeybees and colony collapse disorder, I wrote a novel about four seventh-graders who set up beehives on the roof of a Manhattan hotel. Writing it was more fun than anything I had experienced while a full-time journalist. (Instead of fact-checking names, places and quotes, I could make them up!) The book doesn’t need to have a sequel. One is enough.
The most vivid reinforcement for this new perspective comes from my weekly visits to Inglis House, a residential facility in Philadelphia for 250 adults with disabilities, mostly advanced multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. There, I interact with people who have something to teach me about quality of life. Many of these men and women lack the same freedom of movement and clarity of speech as abled people, yet they are focused less on their limitations and more on their potential. Instead of competing with others, they take on challenges suited to their particular disabilities and find satisfaction in their successes, however small they might seem to an outsider.
“Enough” for these individuals is designing a website using voice commands to control the computer, Skyping with family thousands of miles away using specialized joysticks, or painting watercolor portraits with a paintbrush strapped to fingers that are no longer able to hold one.
Volunteering with Inglis and other community groups gives my days a structure that works for me. I am committed to these organizations, grateful for the opportunity to work with people I like and respect. That’s enough.
Of course I am not completely immune from social comparisons. I still note how my contemporaries dress, what physical shape they are in, how they spend their free time. But it’s less of a zero-sum game. They can look and feel good, and so can I. Indeed, I want them to look and feel good, because their friendships will keep me engaged in the years ahead.
Previously in Encore
- Five Myths About Landing a Good Job Later in Life (November 2016)
- How to Use Tech to Connect to Grandchildren (November 2016)
- ‘I Used to Be So Cool. What Happened?’ (November 2016)
- Good Reads Before Downsizing (March 2016)
- It’s Time to Rethink the Bucket List Retirement (March 2016)
- The Healing Power of Forgiveness (March 2016)
Updike’s observations clarify what I now know: that interior time spent appreciating “enough” is a far better investment than time spent comparing one’s achievements to others or struggling to cross some distant finish line that is always just out of reach. Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is constantly on the run, always looking for the prize in a race he can never win. Our condition, in Updike’s words, is “one of anxiety, of lostness.” Life is “a search [for a] sense of having found home.”
In retirement, I have found home. It is one smaller than others I have lived in, but with enough room for family and friends. I have some regrets, a sense of some opportunities missed, but I am no longer in relentless pursuit of more. If John Updike, who died in 2009, were on Twitter, my message to him would be: “I think I have found it. #enough.”
Ms. Shell is a writer in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appeared in the Apr. 24, 2017, print edition.