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A Reflection on ‘What If This Were Enough’

When I first heard that Heather Havrilesky’s newest book was called What If This Were Enough? I knew I needed to get my hands on it.

Heather writes the advice column “Ask Polly” for The Cut and has written another book I enjoyed, mostly made up of those columns: How To Be a Person in the World. I love Heather for the way she champions her readers, especially her single readers, encouraging them to seek out comfort in their own skin (much like I hope to do with my writing here).

But beyond just another book by an author I like, I was hoping that this book would address something I’ve been thinking about lately: when will it be enough?

We live in a culture of ambition and desire. I have spent much of my life feeling somewhat dissatisfied, sort of like a kid when the magic of Christmas doesn’t seem quite as magical as it did when I was in elementary school. But the truth is, even when you get what you want, everything you think you want, it can be hard to turn off that voice inside that tells you that you should keep pushing anyway, that there is even more.

Here’s how Heather ends her introduction: “More than anything else, we have to imagine a different kind of life, a different way of living. We have to reject the shiny, shallow future that will never come, and locate ourselves in the current, flawed moment. Despite what we’ve been taught, we are neither eternally blessed or eternally damned. We are blessed and damned and everything in between. Instead of toggling between victory and defeat, we have to learn to live in the middle, in the gray area, where a real life can unfold on its own time. We have to breathe in reality instead of distracting ourselves around the clock. We have to open our eyes and our hearts to each other. We have to connect with what already is, who we already are, what we already have. We want too much. We don’t need that much to be happy. We can change ourselves, and our world, in part by returning to that simple truth, repeatedly. We have to imagine finally feeling satisfied.”

What would it feel like to be satisfied? It’s a startling question when you really think about it. What if you or I stopped adding caveats to our happiness? What if we didn’t think we’d be happy when we had spouses, houses, kids, or that elusive dream job, but allowed ourselves to be happy in this very moment?

I’m not saying to turn off desire—not only is that unhealthy, but it doesn’t work—I’m just saying that if we hang all of our hopes of being happy on something that hasn’t happened, we are gambling with our happiness. That’s a lot to put on the future.

But far from encouraging readers to tamp down difficult emotions like sadness or longing, Heather rails against the mindless positivity of our culture. Maybe this sounds a little familiar? “We are all—in our public lives, in our professional lives, and even in our personal lives—urged to grin along obediently like contestants on The Bachelor, hoping against hope that we win some mysterious, coveted prize that we can’t see clearly. Smiling along like you’re already happy is what leads you to your own Happily Ever After, Refusing to smile, refusing to agree, refusing to comply: These things mean that you are difficult and you want to be unhappy.”

Heather’s book covers a lot of ground, from a disappointing trip to Disneyland with her kids to pop culture and the effect it has on our collective psyche, but through it all, she’s asking the reader to be curious with her: what if we didn’t have to try so hard? What if our lives were enjoyable rather than a furious quest for the things we don’t have. To me, it reads a bit like an invitation to relax, and, as applied to romantic life—not to treat finding someone to love as such an odious task. Date, look for someone, pursue that part of your life, but don’t kill yourself doing it.

Perhaps just as important is this thought: “We shop for friends and colleagues on Twitter and Facebook, shop for mates on Tinder, and order everything else we need from Amazon. If the increasing prevalence of open relationships reflects an increasingly liberal society, it also mirrors the ways we’ve applied the everything-all-the-time excesses of the market to our love lives. For every tier of service, there is a higher tier of service. For every product, there is an upgrade. For every luxury, there is something even more luxurious out there, somewhere. We no longer need to be encouraged to imagine fancier or better or more. The very existence of a given person, place, or thing now immediately conjures a better, more beautiful, more enticing version of the same. We are so conscribed by the market-driven mind-set that we can no longer experience anything outside of the context of ‘more’ and ‘better.’”

Far from encouraging you to settle, I think this passage illuminates something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: with years to think about an ideal person, what happens when someone wonderful (but imperfect) comes into your life. Are you able to see them? Will they be enough?

If you’ve been feeling a pull toward seeking out happiness and contentment, even now, even when everything is not perfect, this might be the book for you. I’ve found myself using the title as a bit of a mantra in the time since I finished reading. What if this were enough?

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.