When is enough, enough?

‘Enough’ is a difficult and almost dangerous word. It feels comforting and encouraging – who wouldn’t be helped by being told they’ve done enough or have enough?

But often it isn’t comforting because the word ‘enough’ can tyrannise us with feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

How could that happen? Here’s how. Let me retell a story from my days as a church pastor. A young man met with me to insist our church didn’t pray enough. He wasn’t referring to people’s private, personal prayers. His view was that the whole congregation needed to meet together often specifically for prayer. ‘We don’t pray enough,’ he said. We talked, didn’t agree, and finally I asked, ‘Could you imagine a time when the church did pray enough?’ He paused – for quite a long time – then replied, ‘No, I could never imagine we prayed enough’. As gently as I could, I said that if he couldn’t tell me how much ‘enough’ was, then saying ‘we don’t pray enough’ did not make easy sense.

If I won that argument I certainly didn’t win the man – he still didn’t believe we prayed enough.

I heard the concept of ‘enough’ – or, rather, ‘not enough’ – used with countless subjects. People would tell me ‘we don’t sing the old hymns enough’, or ‘we don’t care for the elderly enough’, or ‘we don’t give enough overseas aid’, or ‘we’re not friendly enough to newcomers’, and many more complaints. I had answers, but these statements hurt. When people said we (except often they meant me) were ‘not doing enough’ they meant we were falling short, not putting in sufficient effort or care. Even though I had defences, I felt attacked and guilty.

Of course there are times when we don’t do enough. We don’t reach the expected standard. People talk of doing enough but imply being perfect. We fall short. All of us do.

But there is a particular difficulty with the word ‘enough’. It’s summed up in a simple four word question. When is enough, enough?[1]

First, let’s accept we often won’t know. How could we ever be sure we’ve prayed enough, or thought enough, or been kind enough, or generous enough, or wise enough?

However, we get close to knowing when enough is enough in certain circumstances.

  • When we can define a precise goal in advance – like: ‘I need to walk 10,000 steps a day’ or ‘I must get eight hours sleep each night’ or ‘I must check my car’s tyre pressures every Saturday’. If your targets are the right ones, and you meet them, then you’ll have done enough.
  • When we have imprecise but reasonable awareness of reaching a limit. Well-disciplined people stop eating when they know they’re full (or, even better, nearly full). Confession: I’ve never that well-disciplined. But I knew when I was tired while driving, edging towards feeling sleepy, so would pull in to a service area for a nap or at least to walk in fresh air. These days I realise when my back is sending me warning signals that I’ve worked long enough at my desk and I should stretch and take a break. Speaking of which…

So, we can know when enough is enough, either by achieving precise targets or by having a good idea when we’re reaching limits.

But not everything is easily defined or deduced. Faced with a big decision – like taking up a new job offer – you could tell the prospective employer, ‘I’ll think about it for two days and then give you my answer’. That sounds reasonable, but who can guarantee that two days will be ‘enough’? Forty eight hours may be filled with thought but lacking a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. In fact, no amount of time may ever be enough for certainty about some tough decisions.

The real world is one with confusion and doubt, from which we emerge unsure whether we’ve given something enough time or attention, or been sufficiently kind or generous, and so on. Not knowing if we’ve done enough is normal and often unavoidable.

Second, you’ve reached enough when doing more means something else gets less.

Please don’t stop reading if I tell you economists would refer to this as the opportunity cost. In their words that’s defined as ‘the forgone benefit that would have been derived from an option not chosen’.[2]

Quickly let me put opportunity cost in my words: to give more to one thing is to have less for another thing.

Imagine these scenarios:

  • You want to give your four children pocket money, but the most you can afford in total is £20 a week. You could give each £5, but perhaps the older ones need more than just £5. Perhaps one needs £8 and the other £6. But that means only £3 each is left for the youngest two, and that’s too little. What would happen? By giving the older kids enough, you’d give the younger ones less than enough.
  • Since you have four children you have a very busy life. But your aged aunt is frail, and your brother is sick, so you devote one evening per week to visit your aunt and one evening per week for your brother. Then your aunt’s health deteriorates, so now you need to see her at least twice per week. There are only two ways to make that possible – you can stop visiting your brother, or you can no longer spend that other evening with your spouse and children.

Opportunity cost is all about balancing resources, which can be time, money, skills, interests, companionship. Spend it one way, and you don’t have the opportunity to spend it another way.

So, if you work ‘til you drop, there’ll be a cost in missed time with family or for leisure and fitness.

Or, spend all your money in bars or clubs, there’ll be too much month at the end of the money, so the cost will be eating badly (or hardly at all).

Or, give too much time to church, community group, or a major hobby, the cost is that needy neighbours don’t get your support.

In other words, any of the sentences above could have been phrased: ‘if you give more than enough to… then there’s less than enough for…’ There is such a thing as ‘enough’, and you will know you’ve reached it when doing more with that thing would mean doing less with another thing. Wise people realise that moment has come, and try to make wise decisions.

Finally, staying within the limits of enough takes courage and determination. It’s normal to overstretch ourselves with things we love doing. Some of my golfing friends play a round every weekday, and go on golfing holidays two or three times a year. Some of Alison’s friends are so committed to dog agility training and competitions, not only do they practise with their dogs several times a week, they own large caravans / trailers and travel hundreds of miles to dog agility events. Why? They love it. Are they doing too much? I can’t make that judgment. But if they are over-committed – giving more than enough – they’ll have to be very brave and very resolute to change.

Such courage and determination is possible. And it’s necessary. Living ‘beyond enough’ is dangerous, especially when it affects health or relationships. Some don’t realise the ‘cost’ in their own life or lives of others until it’s too late. Enough really must be enough.

[1] Or is that only three words?

[2] From Investopedia: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/o/opportunitycost.asp#:~:text=Opportunity%20cost%20is%20the%20forgone,and%20weighed%20against%20the%20others.