A Theology of Enough

Greg Pierce

From Spirituality@Work, (c) Loyola Press 2004. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

In Chicago’s Goodman Theater production of A Christmas Carol, one of the characters says wistfully, “Enough, what a glorious word.” And when Jesus asked the disciples what they had to feed the multitude and they said five loaves and two fishes, he said, basically, “That is enough.”

Deciding what is “enough” in the workplace and then sticking to it is a very underrated virtue. How much of the pressure, the busyness, the competition, the unhappiness, and the inability to see God in our work results from our failure to practice this discipline?

It seems that in the workplace, enough is never enough. We get people working on an assembly line and establish goals for “productivity.” The workers finally meet those goals but then find that it is not enough””that the standards have been raised. A person opens a retail store, hoping that sales might reach half a million dollars some day. That goal is met, but it is no longer enough. A lawyer or accountant puts in extra hours on a big case, only to find three more jobs added to his or her load.

We must build into our workday ways of reminding ourselves of what is enough along with strategies for sticking to our decisions. This is, simply put, a spiritual discipline for the workplace. Just as there are “contemplative” spiritual disciplines like meditation, Bible reading and prayer, there are disciplines for the spirituality of work. And learning to say “enough” and learning to live with imperfection are two of them.

But how can we practice these disciplines, especially in a society and a workplace that seem intent on convincing us that we need more of everything and that it is virtually impossible to have enough? If we cannot find a way, will we ever really get in touch with the God of plenty in our work?

 

Enough Effort and Success (or Failure)

As with money and time, we must decide how much effort on a particular project is enough, and part of that decision is based on the amount of success we aspire to or the amount of failure we will tolerate. If a business sets a goal of a ten percent increase in sales for a year, this can be realistic or unrealistic, based on marketing strategy, product quality, efficiency of the employees, and so forth. But there are also factors over which the company has absolutely no control, such as the economy, the competition, natural disasters, or the defection of a key employee.

Depending on how much effort the company puts in, the ten percent increase can most likely be achieved. The question that has to be asked is how much success (or, alternatively, how much failure) is enough? If it means that everyone puts in massive amounts of overtime or that supervisors put undue pressure on employees, this might create an atmosphere of fear and competition among the staff. It might even risk the ongoing viability of the firm itself. In this situation, the effort to achieve the increase may not be worth it. Someone has to step in and say, “Enough! Maybe the goal was too high, maybe the internal or external situation has changed dramatically, maybe it was just a mistake, but in any case we have put in enough effort on this project. A five percent increase will have to be enough success.”

Sometimes we beat our heads against a wall to accomplish something when the only truly spiritual decision is to say that we have put in enough effort and that we will just have to live with the success we have achieved. We have to mow half the lawn or shovel half the driveway, receive a B instead of an A, lose the account, settle for a modest increase or accept a modest decrease, come in third place, leave the dirty dishes in the sink until morning.

There is a spiritual side to this seeming failure. We can fall back on the notion that it is not by our efforts alone that we succeed, that God has a part in all our work, and that failure and incompleteness are part of the human condition.

There are many practices that can help us reach this state of enlightenment. For example, before we can start a task we can set a time limit and hold to it, no matter what the result. We can share the work with others and also the decision about when to say “enough.” We can keep track of our failures and successes and review them once a year, recognizing how modest most of them really were.

Maybe once a day we need to have a bell go off in our heads, at which time we look at whatever we are doing at the time and ask ourselves, “Have I done enough on this? Have I tried hard enough? Have I had enough success (or failure) at this?” If the answer is no, then the follow-up question should be “when will enough be enough?”

Peyton Craighill, an Episcopalian priest, husband, and father describes “enough” this way:

Enough has both negative and positive connotations. The negative meaning comes out in a phrase such as “not the best, but good enough.” Here the word implies setting a limitation that prevents us from attaining our highest goal. It suggests settling for an easier, less demanding way that doesn’t bring out our full capabilities. The other meaning is very different. Here the word points to the golden mean between two extremes. “Enough” in this context signifies the ideal balance between “too much” and “too little.”

The image that comes to my mind is that of tuning my FM receiver to listen to music. There’s a perfect frequency on the band where everything is in tune and beautiful, harmonious sound pours out. On each side of that frequency is buzz and distortion. Putting our lives in harmony with God’s mission for us is that node that defines the “enough” between extremes. Here is where we find the resonance that empowers without stressing.

What is enough when it comes to money or material goods? For most of us, one simple discipline is to admit that we already have enough. But, we still must deal with our desire for more things. This desire is not inherently bad. It keeps our economy humming and can, in fact, lift everyone’s boat if the proper social safeguards are in place.

But, we need to decide how much “stuff” we need””and what we are willing to do to get it. If we wish to be rich, then we have pretty much committed ourselves to a certain set of economic decisions. If it is enough to be middle-class, then we have to maintain that standard of income and decide which things we will consider to be luxuries and which to be necessities.

The key to these decisions is to practice the discipline of deciding what is enough and sticking to it. This may mean writing down our financial goals each year and having a family meeting to discuss and adopt them. It may mean reviewing regularly how much we truly need and how much we are sharing with others. Here are a few more ideas for practicing the spiritual discipline of saying “enough.”

  • Whenever you decide that you have not spent enough time or effort on a project, ask yourself what will be “enough.” Write that down and stick to it.
  • Write down how much money you need to live on. Put it with your income tax file and review and update each year. Note the discrepancy (if any) between what you earned and what you determined was enough.
  • Make a list of your “greatest failures”””those goals you did not accomplish that later turned out to be not so important. Keep the list posted in your workplace and add to it regularly.
  • Each time you are offered a promotion, a raise, or a new job, pray over whether to take it and consider the price you might have to pay for taking it.

 

Living with Imperfection

Cardinal John Henry Newman once said that nothing would ever be done if we waited until we could do it so perfectly that no one could find fault with it. When I first became an editor, I went to a seminar where the instructor said that every book published should have two typographical errors. The idea was that the amount of work it would take to get those last two typos out of a manuscript was not worth it. Editors just have to live with imperfection if they were going to accomplish anything.

That was a very liberating lesson for me””and not just in my editing work. I am very much an imperfect editor, parent, spouse, coach, community organizer and church volunteer. I have to learn to live with it, and living with imperfection is one of the disciplines within the spirituality of work that I now practice.

The beauty of this particular discipline is that we don’t have to do much to remember to practice it. Our imperfections rise up and confront us, and if they don’t, our bosses (or colleagues or spouses or children) are quick to point them out! We need to build into the workday concrete ways of accepting that we are not perfect. For example, every time I find a typo in one of the books I publish, I give glory to God.

 

Overrating Perfection

The idea that our work can be perfect is, on the face of it, absurd. Part of the very nature of humanity is our imperfection. On the few occasions that a man or woman achieves perfection, we call it genius and the accomplishment a masterpiece. But for most people most of the time, our work will be less than perfect””less, even, than what we are capable in our best moments.

Does its inherent imperfection make our work less spiritual? Not necessarily. If we accept imperfection as part of the human condition, then we should be able to celebrate our failures as well as our successes. In fact, the opposite of this discipline is a sin called “perfectionism.” Out of our egotism and insecurity, we try to do the impossible””that is, be perfect””with the predictable result that we make a mess of the very work we are trying to accomplish, we drive our colleagues crazy, and we harm our spiritual life in the process.

In his book Protect Us from All Anxiety: Meditations for the Depressed, Fr. William Burke describes the problems with trying to be a perfectionist: “A perfectionist is ill, trying desperately to live an impossible life.” He goes on to make this prayer: “Lord, I hate the imperfect in me. I despise it. I want to hide it. Which means I hate, despise, and want to hide me. Yet you love me. Something’s got to give.”

People reach greater heights of performance because they push the envelope and risk greater failure and imperfection. Imperfection is a condition of growth, and athletes and artists know that if they don’t push beyond what they have already achieved, they cannot do their best work. The same is true for each of us.

 

Living with the Imperfection of Others

While we may be able to train ourselves to accept our own imperfections, learning to live with the imperfection of others in the workplace can be even more daunting. We count on others to do their work correctly, and we are justifiably irritated when they do not. The discipline of living with imperfection, however, forces us to take a step back and reconsider before we issue a complaint or a reprimand.

The first consideration is the importance of the mistake. If it is a matter of safety””the proper functioning or operation of an automobile or a nuclear generator, for example””then certainly there can’t be much tolerance for error. The second question we must ask is why are these lapses occurring? If it is a matter of sloth or inattention or lack of caring, then it is difficult to see anything spiritual about that imperfection. But if someone is doing less than perfect work because he is exhausted from caring for a sick friend or relative, then that fact might shed an entirely different light on minor failures. Similarly, can we really expect perfect work from someone who is being unjustly exploited in terms of pay or working conditions? Or perhaps a worker was momentarily distracted by the real needs of another colleague or a customer. Aren’t those good enough reasons to make a mistake?

 

Enough Spirituality

Here is a really hard question for those of us who take religion and spirituality seriously. When have we had enough of it? It many ways, this is a silly question. How can we ever have enough spirituality? What would enough spirituality look like?

I was once asked to give a retreat for a group of businesspeople and was asked by the president of the organization to give a “Jesus-centered retreat on the spirituality of work.” I’m no Bible scholar, and had never thought of Jesus as a role model for the spirituality of work. While it is true that tradition has him working as a carpenter for the first thirty years of his life, we really don’t know much about those hidden years. During his ministry he was an itinerant preacher with, as he said himself, not even a place to lay his head. What did Jesus have to say to those of us struggling to make sense of our work and balance it with the rest of our lives?

I was about to tell them that I could not give the retreat when I happened to read a quote from Albert Einstein, who said that the mark of a true genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in one’s mind at the same time. I thought If Jesus was a genius (and I assume he was), what might have been two contradictory thoughts he held in his mind at the same time?

What if Jesus believed that””at any given time and at exactly the same time””we have never done enough and yet have already done enough?

As I began to look at some of the Gospel stories with this contradiction in mind, they began to make sense to me for the first time. I thought of the laborers in the field, the rich young man, the woman at the well, and so on. In so many stories, Jesus seemed to be saying that if we think we have done enough, we have not, and if we think we have not done enough, we already have.

This contradiction seemed to fit the struggles I was having with the ambiguities of the spirituality of work, and so I agreed to use it as the theme for the retreat. The idea seemed to ring true to the experience of the participants, and it has since become the basis for my own understanding and practice.

It seems to me that whatever our work, we need to build into it ways of reminding ourselves that there are self-imposed limits to what we need or want or are capable of. We have to determine what those limits are and stick to them if we are to be in touch with God, who is always “enough.”

Excerpt from Spirituality@Work by Gregory F.A. Pierce (Loyola Press 2004). Reprinted with permission of Loyola Press. To order copies of this book, call 1-800-621-1008 or visit www.loyolabooks.org.