Last week, I reflected on how grateful I am for enough rain, and enough food, clothing, and work. This week, I want to reflect on the word enough and how we think about it in America today. To do that, I’m going to begin with a fairly modern notion: the nuclear family.
You see, for most of human history, families dwelt in larger groups rather than individual families. Three or four generations would share the same space, with extended and related families nearby. This gave elders a chance to teach children while parents were out hunting, gathering, farming, and herding, and later building, earning, and spending. It also allowed for economies of scale and sharing resources when times got tough.
Over time, in America, the idea of individuality took hold. In cities, families shared a house, but dwelt on different floors. (There’s a great family story about how Henry’s grandfather’s first wife found out he was a bigamist because a letter was delivered to the wrong Mrs. Jesse Q. Hoffman!) As life in cities grew more crowded, enterprising individuals and nuclear families moved west, seeking farmland, then gold, then the freedom to do their own thing. In recent decades, people have become comfortable moving around this country “at the drop of a hat,” or a job opportunity, or a medical diagnosis.
All this has meant that many of us don’t think to rely on extended family. The expectation when I was growing up was that I would go away to college, then get a job and set up house on my own wherever the best opportunity was. That meant I was on my own, financially. I was expected to hold my own and make good use of the resources my good job would provide.
Fortunately, I’ve done well. I’ve never been close to being homeless, or running out of money, or losing employment because of accident or illness. My one period of unemployment was intentionally spent beginning to grow the small business that I’ve now been running for more than ten years. I’ve always had enough.
Unfortunately, many others have not. Whether due to accident, illness, racism, or other inequities, they don’t have enough. If we still lived in broader kinship groups, some of those people might have been able to lean on extended family to get through the difficult times. There used to be an expectation that family comes first—and I will admit that I do see it more in the Latin community than I do among my own white folks. Certainly the mostly white leaders of this country presume that if the poor don’t have enough, it’s their fault, even when the system those leaders help sustain is the underlying issue.
So, what does this have to do with defining how much is enough? The traditional principle behind purchasing insurance is that everyone pays in, a percentage need help, and everyone’s payments support those who need help. It’s equity, in the sense that those who need the assistance get the extra boost, theoretically to bring them back up to the same level as the rest of us.
The problem is that we no longer think in such terms. It’s all about us as individuals. I have to stockpile “enough” because I can’t expect anyone to help me if my house is flooded or my hip breaks. Even insurance companies are now focused on paying investors and minimizing payouts. Attitudes have changed. Too many of us no longer care about any kind of social safety net.
So, how much is enough? If I knew exactly how long I would live and how healthy I would be, I could plan it all out and give away the excess funds—but I don’t. So I feel like a hoarder, trying to keep “enough.” Jesus has a story about those who are focused on having enough possessions instead of being “rich toward God.” Click the link and read it.
My life, like that rich man’s, could be over tomorrow. So could yours. What, then, would you think about how much is enough?
Oh, my, you’ve hit on the very core of what’s wrong with our society today! Individualism, pure and simple. Thank goodness there are church groups who think of others, take care of their parishioners and those who are less fortunate. But, as you mention, that mindset doesn’t exist anymore in insurance companies and other large corporations. The motivating factor seems to be greed instead of the common good.
So, what to do? Tithing to your church is a good starting point, as well as contributing to charities. And if we die tomorrow, leaving small fortunes behind, we’d better have provisions in our wills spelling out which worthy causes it will all be left to.
Thanks, Aston, for your thoughtful response to my post. Yes, the church has done a good job of counteracting our rampant individualism. I like your suggestions, and the reminder to have our affairs in order. Thank you!