Over the past winter holidays, I spent some time trying to craft a coherent musing about the overemphasis on gifts and stuff during the holy season. Ironically, my ability to focus on this task fell victim to information overload. The number of well-reasoned, well-written essays and opinions that either attack and lament or that defend and promote consumerism, gift-giving and/or greed is surpassed only by the advertisements and other clutter one must wade through to view them! Immersing myself in such internet commentary, it quickly became apparent that attempting to add anything fresh and valuable to the analysis of holiday consumerism would either be overkill or lost in the weeds of constant debate. The wisdom of the ages says “tis a gift to be simple,” but the analysis of simplicity is not!

I emerged from the holidays with a sense that a reasoned response to unfettered consumption and growth-for-growth’s sake might be impossible, at least in the short term. It might take time for alternatives to seep into the heart of our society. However, in the meantime, it is possible to devote ourselves to fun and workable alternatives that transcend our present obsession with consumption and constant growth.   We can continue to develop new ways to acquire and use food, water, energy and stuff; to enjoy ourselves in ways that don’t require undue resources; to find healthier ways of living that will serve us when old systems break down. Thus, after being stymied over the holidays in my attempts at reason, I returned my life’s energy to these endeavors.

Then one morning, when the holidays were but a memory, a ray of simple wisdom shone through.  As I was getting ready to take the kids to school, I noticed my 7 year old daughter examining a small, framed proverb that occupies a rather unnoticed spot on a side-table in our home.  After admiring the calligraphy for a few seconds, she began reading the 2500 year old excerpt from the Tao te Ching aloud. Curiously she began with the last line: “Only he who knows what is enough will always have enough.”   Her words, filled with childhood innocence and beauty, framed by the silence of the moment, nearly brought me to tears.

In a society driven by advertising and other messages that tell us we never have enough, such words are usually ignored or glossed over as anachronisms.   But, whether we personally consider ourselves greedy or not, our lives, properties and communities are cluttered with stuff, fueled by immense inputs of energy and racing at an absurd pace.   “Enough” is overrun by the mantra of growth at all costs and the result is an ever-rising tide of destruction.

We do need alternatives to our present ways of farming, the production and use of energy and water, entertainment and more.   Mostly, though, we need a substitute for the story that collectively guides us – a story that tells us there never is enough. New stories will need to imbue a sense of limits, to provide us with feedback that tempers our natural acquisitiveness.   They will have to offer a new vision of enough – of how living without excess can be happy and healthy.   And responsible.   And respectable.


Tao Te Ching #46 – Translated by John C.H. Wu Shambhala, Boston and Shaftsbury, 1989.

When the world is in possession of the Tao,

The galloping horses are led to fertilize the fields with their droppings

When the world has become Taoless

War horses breed themselves in the suburbs.

There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough

There is no evil like covetousness

Only he who knows what is enough will always have enough