Elliott Writes: "Enough"

I wrote this a while back, and then I revised it a few weeks ago when I sent it as a writing sample for a job I applied for. I think I like it a bit less now, but it's recent writing!

A mentor of mine has a t-shirt that reads, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth… it’s enough.” I often wonder about this enigmatic message; its simplicity, its hope. But one realizes that the phrase is only superficially simple. What does “enough” really even mean? And how do we get there?

This past summer I spent six weeks volunteering in a small town in Ghana, western Africa, where poverty wasn’t just downtown, or on a news special, or in my non-profit class, but was everyday life for nearly everyone I met. I remember seeing a poster for sale on the street that featured a naked, emaciated young boy, arms outstretched toward the sky, with an imploring look on his face and tears in his eyes. Above him were the words, “God, you promised us our daily bread; may we have it now?”

And I wondered about the concept of “daily bread,” and about greed, and about the United States, and about Africa, and about wealth and about “enough.”

On our last day in the country, we spent the night at a friend of a friend’s house in Accra, the airport city. But “house” is a inaccurate, because this was a three-story mansion, even by American standards; complete with a servant/doorman, a neatly trimmed garden, and, most unbelievably, both air conditioning and running water.
And spending the night in a mansion was difficult, after six weeks in regular Ghanaian homes; we looked out over the balcony of the third story of this benevolent woman’s home and as the sun set watched a couple across the street give their daughter a bath in a bucket of soapy water, on what could be called the “front porch” of their grimy, dilapidated shack.

And then I flew home. And I stepped out of my father’s new SUV and into the garage, luggage in tow, and then into my bedroom. And I sighed. And I lay down on my queen size bed, and felt the softness of my expensive linens and the comfort of my (far too many) pillows, and I stared at the ceiling. And I went out to the back porch of my parents’ mansion, and I watched the sun set over an enthralling view of the entirety of the Silicon Valley. And I sighed.

It reminded me of a view of the Ghanian countryside, from the third-floor balcony of an abandoned building where Kwame, a homeless rasta wood-carver, slept. I remembered looking out at the view politely refusing as he and his three friends offered me a portion of their rice, which was probably all they were going to have to eat that day.

And I stood on my balcony and sighed, not with my lungs or my brain or my heart but with my soul, in disappointment. And not because of the disparity between my life and the lives of the poor, away from whom I’d only recently escaped, but because I was already becoming complacent.

I recently read a book titled “Under the Overpass,” by Mike Yankowski, about a young man who spends four months living on the streets of various cities. And afterward, he moves back into the “luxury” of a middle class lifestyle but can’t get comfortable. I was only gone for six weeks, and my living conditions weren’t nearly as bad, and I was already beginning to enjoy my newfound luxury. I sighed because I wanted to be uncomfortable too.

I’ve often marveled at the ease with which we ignore the dissimilarity between our lives and the lives of those around us, how we convince ourselves that it’s somehow fair. How we equate the status quo with the way the world was meant to and will always be, how we rationalize greed, how we transform our faiths into creeds easy to memorize but do nothing about, how we only swallow difficult truths that have convenient, often capitalistic, life applications. How we spend afternoons giving out peanut butter and jelly sack lunches to homeless people and then go eat fancy meals.

And after years of hanging out with and serving the poor and homeless throughout Los Angeles County, and Mexico, and Ghana, it took two minutes with my fancy pillows to again take all of my opulence for granted.
But what, really, am I supposed to do about it? Should I drop out of school and go live on Skid Row? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I could keep selling my possessions, and giving to charity, and simplifying, and minimizing. I could continue with attempts to extricate myself from the tenacious twin grips of greed and capitalism. But I’ve insofar not yet been able to feel as though I have done, or ever will do, “enough.”

I remember how once recently, my friend Lisa was walking up to where SOS, a local homeless Bible study and dinner service, which she’s been attending weekly for months, meets. As she entered the building, she was accosted by a surly gentleman who proceeded to accuse her of not doing enough for the homeless.

And I don’t know whether a less accurate charge has ever been leveled, because she’s one of those people who cannot pass a homeless person on the sidewalk without stopping to talk with him or her for fifteen minutes, whose ambition in life is to be a social worker; one of those rare, inspiring people who sees individuals as God sees them, not as the world does.

But, much to my chagrin, she confessed that she thought he was right. And that cut me rather deep, because if he’s right about her, he’s surely right about me. He’s right about all of us. Of course we can do more; we can always do more. We’ve never done enough.

But what do we do, is the question; and moreover: when is it enough? Is simply being aware of the scope of poverty, of homelessness, of hunger, enough? Is talking to people, is giving out lunches and water bottles, and clothes, and volunteering, is donating time and money and effort enough? Is trying to be the means by which another person gets his or her daily bread enough? Is working for an organization that actively fights poverty enough? Is anything enough? What, again, does “enough” really even mean?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. My friend Cass says all you can do is pick which battle God would have you fight, and fight it. And Tim says that you have to optimize your blessedness to bless others to the fullest. Lisa reminded me that even Jesus didn’t “solve poverty,” but instead gave us tools to make “enough” a feasible future–tools like community, and the ability to break down society’s barriers, and experiences like sharing sunset views with astonishingly generous Ghanian friends, and love.

And maybe that’s the point–that there is no answer, that there never will be an “enough,” at least in my lifetime. I do imagine a future world, though, where enough is real, and is obvious, because it’s the life we live–where shirts like my mentor’s don’t exist because poverty doesn’t; where we will all have our daily bread; where I’ll know what enough is because it’ll be embodied in the heart of every individual. Where, finally, my complacency will be defensible, because equality will be real.

And so I’ve come to the belief that, until that future world is realized, “enough” means a lifestyle aimed at creating it in whatever way I can, whenever I can.

And so, with or without any definite answer, “enough” as a forever searching, always yearning, never complacent lifestyle will have to be enough for now.

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