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The Paradigm of Plenty

bride standing alone under trees
A few weeks ago, I had the huge honor of having a piece published on my favorite website (this one!). It was a loving meditation about my husband, our vibe, and a few of the nice little things I enjoy about our relationship. It was written in the second person because I was writing a letter to myself to read on a fictional future day when I might be worried about my relationship being good enough, because I am a person who can get worried about such things. I also worried about how to frame it so that people would know that it was profoundly personal, and no comment on any other relationship. At the end of the day I knew that the post was honest and true. I hit send and hoped it was good enough.

But, exposing a piece of yourself—and especially something that you hold dear—to The Internet is difficult. I felt anxious about it all day. When I saw “How To Be In Love” on the screen, I felt a little thrill… but then I began beating myself up over turns of phrase, anxious that it wasn’t good enough. That I wasn’t writer enough to have it out there. I psyched myself up for the equivalent of Internet Crack: The comment-o-thon. And then the refreshing began. I clicked that little recycle sign in my browser over and over (andoverandoverandoverandover) about a million times, getting my hit of comments/affirmation as the sun slowly burned its way around the earth. The whole thing reached kind of a fever pitch in the evening (my time), with me laughing and crying and feeling generally extremely wrung out. Brian asked me if I was high because my eyes looked so glassy and red. (Internet Crack, I tell you!) By the time I went to bed the comments had slowed. A final burst came through the next morning. I might have woken up to hit refresh at 4:00 a.m.—not saying I did, just saying I might have.

And then there was round two. A week or so later (after clearing it with me) Maddie wrote a about her reaction to my post—which, for the record, I loved and related to. Round two was harder. Most people said thoughtful things—even if they couldn’t relate to the specifics of what I’d written, or it made them feel uncomfortable. I felt honored that they engaged with the piece enough to think about it and comment. Some people didn’t like the style of the writing, or didn’t connect with the content, and that’s totally cool. It would be a very boring world if we all shared my taste in literature, love, and men.

But there were a few people who felt affronted—even offended—by “How To Be In Love” and they took round two as an invitation to lash out. It being APW, the lashing was smart and subtle—cloaked in irony, intellectualism, and cutting wit. There was a common thread running through it which surprised me: that the piece—and by extension, my marriage—was sickening, disingenuous, ridiculous, false, a lie. Several people were nauseated by the sap. Others eye-rolled. A final straggler said my marriage was messed up if I was too ashamed to be myself.

For such a light piece—I have written far more difficult/controversial things for APW—the scene got surprisingly heavy, and it got me thinking. While I wanted to blow it off with some derision of my own (specifically: “Haters be Hatin'”) that didn’t feel quite right—nor quite true. I thought I recognized something sad, serious, and familiar in the emotion behind those comments.

For all of our celebration of diversity and pride in our individualism here on APW, we can’t help but compare ourselves, searching for benchmarks that will let us know how we measure up. I recognize something that haunts me: fear that what I have/do/am is not enough.

But this, like all of my pieces, is not about other people. It is a piece about me. I am a writer, an artist, a mother, a stepmother, a wife, a lover, an MBA student, a boss, a sister, a daughter, a friend—and so much more. And although I know (in my head) that I’m generally doing a bang up job with life, in my heart, I often worry about having/doing/being enough in every single one of those facets of my being, and I feel like I should have/do/be more.

I worry about letting down feminism, disappointing my mother, impressing my neighbors, excelling at work, being liked by my professors, and remaining irresistible to my husband. I want my kids’ teachers to think I’m a good mom. Hell, I even want the guards at the gate of my apartment complex to think that I’m a MILF. Sometimes I walk out of my house feeling invincible, but all too often, I am plagued with a doubt I am careful to hide behind a façade of smiling confidence… it is an exhausting tilt-a-whirl ride.

There appears to be black hole of fear inside of many of us where quiet self-confidence should live. For me it manifests in the haunted feeling that it’s just a matter of time before I am discovered for the fraud that I really am. Somehow (the mantra goes), I must have everybody tricked, because I’m not really good enough for all of this good in my life to be real. I’m not sure I can trust it. When I look at it written down like that, it doesn’t even make sense. But I have spent enough time here on APW to know I’m not alone in any of this.

At best, that feeling drives me like a hot iron poker to achieve stuff and keep the illusion alive a bit longer. At worst, it has driven me to want to make happy people feel like I’m feeling in those moments of self-doubt (e.g., by making condescending comments about unicorns crapping marshmallows, and wittily poking holes in the confidence of others to bring them down a notch). At its most shameful, I have found myself relieved (or even smug) when others have it “worse” than me. I guess that means I’m winning somehow? That I’m now one step closer to being the valedictorian of adulthood? The affirmation is a drug—I’m addicted to it because it lets me know I’m still okay, still getting away with it. Yeah. Shameful, messed up shit. Talk about dragging something putrid into the light to cleanse a wound.

Being an intellectual person, I find this distorted and destructive internal monologue simultaneously shameful and fascinating. What is the root cause of this pervasive sense of insecurity among some of the most fabulous women I know? And how can we turn this shit wagon around?

Well, after doing a bunch of searching in a bunch of different “-ologies,” I have a theory. I think insecurity boils down to believing, deep down, that we live in a competitive universe where there is not enough to go around.* This belief in a scarcity paradigm is bigger than seeing the glass as half-full or half-empty… it is about whether or not there’s water enough to refill the glass—and whether you believe that filling up your glass empties another glass somewhere.

This cultural backdrop probably finds its roots in the historical Calvinist belief that worldly success was a sign of God’s (limited and scarce) favor. Unlike cultures that venerate humility and renunciation of worldly goods as a sign of spiritual evolution, we venerate those with power and riches. Overlaid on this backdrop is a school system that relentlessly classifies us along a statistical normal distribution curve. It’s no wonder that we believe that the only way to know how we’re doing is to figure out how we stack up compared to everybody else.

The paradigm is further reinforced by marketers who tell us over and over that there is not enough (of anything, really) to go around (supplies are running out!). It’s an implied threat that sells stuff, for sure, as it tickles a little survival switch in our lizard brain that fears famine. The more we believe that stuff is scarce and the more worried we are that we won’t get something that we need, the faster we buy it (and the more we pay for it). The logic goes like this: What is rare is valuable! And to be fair, there are a lot of examples where this is true. Gold. Professorships in our hometowns. Female CEOs.

But here’s the rub—and the source of our suffering: the inverse is not necessarily true, though we tend to believe it is. What is valuable is not necessarily rare.

When I think about the things that I truly and deeply value—Love, Discovery, Courage, Creativity (among others)—I realize that they aren’t really rare at all—or they don’t have to be. There are endless wells of these resources, waiting to be tapped and unleashed. Now, I am assuming a basic level of health and safety here, and there are lots of examples of things that are both valuable and rare. But if I buy into the idea that the most valuable things are rare, then life becomes a very ugly competition indeed as your good somehow must take away from my opportunity for good. And this, my friends, is where we turn the shit wagon around. We can embrace the idea that we live in a universe where the most valuable things are abundant and where success is absolute—not relative.

Now I’m not saying we should go crazy on our credit cards because the bills will magically get paid by unicorns. But I have found that when I am able to put on a pair of abundance-tinted glasses and act as if there is enough good to go around, I feel much more peaceful and joyful, and everything gets easier. Instead of hording, I start to share, and more often than not, I get back far more than I give. Instead of feeling self-conscious and judgmental and defensive, I become uninhibited, curious, and inspired by that which is different than me. This openness makes me more creative. I begin to see society’s expectations as interesting, but kind of arbitrary, and thus adopt the elements that serve my personal journey of growth, reinforce the things I truly value, and support my moral code.

In my head the plenty paradigm sounds like this: “I love my body enough to eat healthy food and go to the gym, and I’ll feel so good afterwards!” Instead of “I am disgusting, but if I beat that pretty bitch showing off on the treadmill, maybe I can leave here feeling okay.” It also sounds like this: “I really appreciate the way that Maddie’s husband listens to her when she is upset, and I love the way Meg’s David rips up a dance floor.” I can admire other decisions/weddings/marriages without making them a referendum on my own—and I believe that their goodness makes mine even better. I can appreciate the moms who make gorgeous bento box lunches, and copy their ideas for a special birthday treat—instead of cowering in the dark certainty that because I brought Oreos late to the bake sale I am clearly a fraud.

The APW editors’ response to the comment referendum on my work was the “How To Be In Love Open Thread.” And it was a beautiful example of the plenty-paradigm in practice. After reading all of those tangled bits of loveliness, I remembered how my husband always fills out the forms for me before I go to the airport—and I got new ideas for how we can show love (insert me singing Tenacious D’s “That’s F-ing TEAM WORK” and fist-bump bombing). It’s a small shift, but the change is profound, and when I manage to put myself in that universe of possibility the feeling that I have/am/do enough after all tends to follow suit.

It may very well be an unavoidable part of our nature to desire and acquire, to compare and to doubt—we are a social species steeped in culture of consumption, and we are thoughtful searchers. But I can’t help but think we would actually live better, have more of what we want, do more of what we enjoy, and be more of what we truly value, if we could just say—and believe with every fiber of our beings: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, and SO AM I!

*The United States and most European countries share a competitive and individualistic orientation, but this orientation is not at all universal. Many cultures have a collaborative and/or collectivist orientation that emphasizes social harmony and discourages extreme individuation. Moreover, many cultures venerate ascetics and the renunciation of worldly goods as a sign of spiritual evolution.

Since leaving NYC’s glossy magazine editorial world in 1999, Manya has been living in Sub-Saharan Africa trying to be useful raising money for, designing, and managing public health projects. Manya (who is an American) currently lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya with her beloved husband, Brian, and two daughters, aged 14 and 7. 

 

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