A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Kurt Vonnegut tells a story in his poem, “Joe Heller” (you can find it in various corners of the internet, but it was originally published in the New Yorker, as far as I can tell). You probably know how it goes: Vonnegut and Heller are at a party thrown by some billionaire and Vonnegut asks Heller how he feels about the fact that this guy makes more money in a day than Heller will make in a lifetime. Heller says, well, I have something he’ll never have, and Vonnegut asks what’s that, and Heller responds that he has “knowledge that I’ve got enough” (Vonnegut’s closing line: “Not bad! Rest in peace!”).

It’s a good story, as far as it goes. It is better to have some sense of what might be enough than to have no idea at all. Judging your self-worth by the size of your bank balance is unwise etc. But, the story has always sort of annoyed me. Partly because when I encounter it in the wild the people delivering it do so with a self-satisfied smirk. Take that billionaire! Go home and cry into your sacks of cash in lonely isolation! But, it’s more than the implicit smugness. It just doesn’t quite seem true. At least not to me, with my own hunger for more. I think, for most of us, most of the time, “enough” is preceded by “never” (Never! Never!). Maybe it isn’t a hunger for money that we are trying to satisfy, but there’s always something we’re chasing that we can never quite catch. A human animal is one marked by a “never enoughness.”

There are more and less virtuous “enoughs” to pursue. Various vices – drugs, gambling etc. – are marked by “never enoughness” in a particularly dangerous and damaging way. The drug addict, consumed by hunger for the next high, is a flashing red warning sign regarding the way our desires can escape from our control. But, the flashing warning sign can obscure the ways in which even the best things of life are marked by a sense of there never being enough. How much virtue will be enough? How much knowledge? How much love? Pouring yourself into caring for your children is better than chasing the next hit of heroin (to use a metaphor from earlier in this project: one activity resonates more with the song of creation than the other). But there is eventually a limit to what the love of one children’s can provide for a person in terms of ultimate fulfillment. Even if we can perfectly calibrate and discipline all our various pursuits and desires (and in general, most of us cannot, not even close), there is always going to be something left over, a hunger that remains unfulfilled.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis says that if we have a desire that cannot be satisfied by anything in this world, what can this mean but that we were made for another one? I think there are other possible answers to Lewis’s question (and Lewis knew it too), but they tend to be depressing to contemplate: perhaps we are the victims of some sort of strange cosmic joke, perhaps life is simply absurd. I think what is undeniable is that the desire for something more exists, that we may try and dull it, we may try and satisfy it by a variety of different means – virtuous and otherwise – but we cannot escape it. At each point when we finally reach “enough” in whatever dimension we pursue it there will always be that whisper in the night: “But is it really though?”

Part of the hope of the Christian story is that there is a point when we will reach enough, an ultimate enough. That our hunger will be satisfied. While there is no return to walking with God in the garden, no way back to the abundance of that beginning, there is an end when we will once again meet him face to face, and the desire that cannot be fulfilled by any other thing will be fulfilled in him. God is more than enough.

Further exploration:

  • Ecclesiastes
  • Not a theological text, but Judith Grisel’s Never Enough is the best book on addiction I’ve read (even if you’re not interested in the nitty-gritty – the introduction and conclusion are worth reading)