Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.
"He who recognizes that enough is enough will always have enough."
-- Lao Tzu
How much is enough? Enough to never feel hungry? Enough to feel safe? Enough to buy a house? Enough to do whatever we want? Enough to be happy?
Does a billionaire have enough, and if so, then why do many of them seem to devote all of their energy to getting even more? On the other hand, what about a Mother Teresa, who, in choosing to have little, still claimed to have more than enough.
Most of our lives seem to be spent in the obtaining of enough. In fact, our consumer-oriented economy is based in part on the assumption that we can never really have enough. For some reason we all must have more, and more still.
At first reading, the statement by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu seems to offer little to our understanding of the riddle of enough. If anything, it appears to simply add to our confusion. Yet, perhaps there is a deeper meaning implied.
Though I'm not much of a philosopher, I think the key to understanding Lao Tzu's comments is in recognizing that he employs two distinct meanings of the word "enough." The first has to do with the external world of things -- money, possessions, power, etc. The second meaning has to do with the internal world of self-worth, of meaning, of fulfillment.
Lao Tzu may be pointing out that there is a limit to the importance of things in our lives. Recognizing that we all have basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, etc., our accumulating of things is necessary, to a point. Beyond that point, however, our investment of ourselves in such a pursuit adds little to our sense of having "enough."
The reason for this has to do with our second understanding of enough. Though accumulating more and more things may provide some sense of self-worth, of meaning, of fulfillment, such an inner state is transitory at best.
Often, in fact, our obsession with things robs us of the time and energy needed to seek the true sources of worth, meaning and fulfillment.
And what are these sources? Philosophers, theologians, great teachers and our own experience seem to all concur that they have to do with fully expressing our own unique talents, interests and characteristics in loving and giving relationships with those around us.
Lao Tzu's comments, then, (rewritten by yours truly,) might read something like this: "When we limit our accumulation of things to simply that which is sufficient, we free ourselves to pursue in our lives what will truly bring us self-worth, meaning and fulfillment."
You know, Lao Tzu said it shorter -- and better.