Note: This article is excerpted from Small Things with Great Love.
I was at the grocery store, minding my own business, looking for pie crusts in the frozen food section. Harmless, right? Before I found crusts, though, I accidentally stumbled upon a little package of ice cream.
Apparently, you can now buy teeny 3.6-ounce containers of gourmet ice cream. Knowing that impulsive ice-cream buyers like to eat in our cars, they even come with a small plastic spoon right under the lid! Not unlike model airplanes or dollhouse furniture, the little package looks just like a miniature version of the classic pint-sized model. If memory serves, I paid about a dollar for each tiny serving. My kids loved them and probably ate a more reasonable portion of ice cream for an afterschool snack than they would have if I'd gone my regular route and bought a big, cheap generic half-gallon. That's what I told myself. I framed it like it was about the health and well-being of my loved ones.
In order to do that, I needed to not think about the wasted packaging that goes into these single-serving portions, let alone ones that come with disposable utensils. I also had to not think about locally grown produce that also might have fallen into the "health and well-being" category of afterschool snack options. And, as I was buying three one-dollar servings, I certainly couldn't think about children in developing countries whose family income was just two dollars a day—if a parent was fortunate enough to have work.
Once the thrill of the frozen find wore off, the reality of what I'd done began to sink in: with the resources which had been entrusted to me, I'd bought pricey, attractively marketed convenience food.
As horrified as I am purporting to be—as if I'd never done anything like this before—this actually happens all the time. In fact, spending money on what I don't need, consuming more food than I need and tossing away more packaging than I need is sort of a pattern. Regularly burning through way more than my fair share of resources, I've been unwilling to stop at enough.
When Less Is More
Enough can be a little unwieldy for North Americans like me to grasp. Because we're bombarded by advertisements insisting that we deserve more and more and more, enough can be a slippery concept for us.
In the book Living More with Less, which exhorts readers to live more justly and sustainably, a Canadian living in Calcutta shares how she discovered what enough meant.
Herta Janzen explains, "One day a mother came to our apartment to tell me that her daughter would be working in the mountains during the winter and needed a pair of warm slacks." (Because I'm aware that the word need can be as tricky to define as enough, I'm going to spell it out for you: slacks for a winter in the mountains qualifies.) Janzen continues on to describe how the mother asked her for a pair of hers. Janzen explains, "I had only two pairs—a bare minimum in Canada and the U.S. She would think that absurd. Were the Bible passages to be taken literally? After deciding which pair of slacks to give, I added the matching top as well. I'm embarrassed to admit now that I never missed that outfit. The remaining pair of slacks saw me through two winters."
I do not believe it's coincidental that Herta gleaned this little gem in Calcutta and not while pushing an obscenely stuffed shopping cart through the women's clothing section of an American megamart. Herta and her two pairs of slacks are light-years beyond most North Americans, because so many of us have trouble with enough.