How much is enough?
I’ll start with (another) story of disorientation. It began three days ago.
On Sunday night I flew to St. Paul. It is fairly uneventful as flights go. I sit alone. I read and write. I plan for the week.
On the ground this calm uneventful evening starts to unravel slowly. Snow is pouring. I get my bags and find a taxi. We drive north from the airport. When we arrive on campus, I pay the driver with my credit card. He lets me out and hands me my bags. I set them just inside the building’s door and head off to meet campus security and get the apartment keys.
On the way I think I’ll drop off a few books at my office and get my tennis shoes for morning. When I get to the spot where my office key is supposed to be waiting for me, it’s not there. Some other mystery key, but not my office key. Drat.
Okay, on to meet the security guy and get apartment keys. He wants to chat, so we talk about post-colonialism, indigenous practices of worship, church history. Finally I get my keys. It is well after nine by now, and I walk toward the apartment building. The snow stings my face.
I reach for my phone as I’m walking. Not there. I try each pocket in my thermal jacket, my 40-below coat, my flannel lined jeans. No phone. Double drat.
I try not to panic. Maybe it is in one of my bags. I let myself in and search each one. No luck. I start tracking down the cab company. My credit card receipt has not one clue for where to start. I retrace my steps around campus in the snow (which is easy by the way) while my husband dials my phone number repeatedly. He laughs at me. I do not find it funny. I am not laughing. I try everything. Sending emails, making calls on the land line (when was the last time I did that?). The key to my office is still missing of course. The phone must be in the cab, but the driver is not expected back at the airport until midnight.
“Lost keys (not my fault). Lost phone (my fault). What’s next,” I write on facebook, “my mind?”
So you’re wondering. What does this have to do with the question, “how much is enough?”
One word answer: security.
Losing these objects of power, these objects of privilege, put me in a state of insecurity. I depend on my phone to connect me to people I need and love. I depend on keys to get to the other places where I keep my stuff. Last post I talked about margin. These objects are part of my margin. With them I feel connected and powerful, and without them I feel adrift, disoriented, vulnerable. I didn’t know if I should go in to the office the next morning, or what time. I thought of all the phone numbers I would lose if I never recovered the phone. My mental energy devoted to these losses (real and imagined) kept me from finishing other tasks.
The questions “what is margin?” and “how much is enough?” stand in tension with each other. Each is a part of thinking about our need and desire for security. The question of having some margin to bounce into, to prevent drawing off the page, or running in the ditch all seems so sensible. So responsible. So mature. But when my goal becomes to secure myself against risk, to take the guess work out of everything, to try and resist my own vulnerability . . . well then. I’ve failed to face life as it really is with all its finitude. Its limits. I cannot ultimately secure myself against my own impending death, or the everyday risks and vulnerabilities of being human. I can try, but I will fail. Sunday night’s disorientation is but one small example of that reality.
Given these very real limits, how much is enough? Well I usually live more in touch with the narrative of creating enough margin and less with the story of how to stop depending on things, money, keys, phones and other stuff that puts a thin veneer of security over my life. In all likelihood, I’m not going to live without these things, but I can and have tried to be more detached from them. And I’m not really all that good at such detachment. I like my stuff and the illusion of security it gives me. But still I practice, by asking myself, “how much is enough?” And in a society that tells me I can never be too thin, too beautiful or too rich, I need this question to reign in unrealistic desires, moderate my clamoring for security, and face my own vulnerability and limits. Moments like Sunday night press the question in on me. And I keep trying to practice my answer to the question.
Oh, so how did it all turn out, you ask?
Well, Monday morning I hear from a coworker. I was within a few feet of my key, but it was in an odd place and I missed it in the dark. Once in my office, I make and take several calls from the airport taxi dispatcher. The cabbie cannot find my phone. I call my cell several more times. Straight to email. The battery is dead.
I decide to look again outside in the daylight. I take a shovel this time. And I start digging around the spot where the taxi dropped me off. After about five minutes, clunk. I dig up my phone from a snow drift next to a parked van and toss it with a shovel full of snow into an empty spot. Triple drat. Now it lived all night in the snow drift and I’ve probably broken it.
I take it to my office and start charging. Gradually it returns to life and then shows no signs of being worse for its night out in the freezing snow.
I realize that when I was out retracing my steps I was within a few feet of the phone, but it was in an odd place and I missed it in the dark.
Just like the questions we’re raising. They are right there just within reach, but in a sort of odd place, and we miss them in the dark. Yet with a little digging and some light . . . no telling what we might find.