The Burden of Too-Much: Letting Go of Having It All


A postcard arrived in the mail last week. It was from the Disabled Veterans letting us know they’re doing a donation pick up this week. And I realized again:


This is a familiar sentiment. I don’t think I need to go into much detail about the huge Tupperware containers of toys and other miscellany that sits front and center in our living room. Or about the storage closet we pay the equivalent of filling up the car twice just to house boxes of god-knows-what and thing-a-majigs like photo albums, snowboards, fraternity paddles, and coats. Or about the piles of papers and randomness all around the house I try to move/hide/ignore at least once a day.

It’s why I RELISH Trash Day. And Recycle Day (which is every 2 weeks). Somedays I just want to put everything on the curb and say “Be gone with you!!!”

An article in the NY Times talks about an anthropologist’s study of a small cross-section of families in LA and all the ins and outs of family life. His findings were intriguing, and conclusions resonated with me. Nothing earth-shattering but a confirmation of what has been said and what I’ve felt for a long time.

We are plagued by what he calls “hyper-abundance.” And drowning in it.

I’m not just talking about Hoarders which strikes me as a scary psychological condition or the naive cuteness of clutter in Leslie Knope’s house. I’m thinking specifically of TVs in more than one room in one house. Purses. Shoes. Toys. Books (Andy and I have many similar books but that’s only because he insisted on having his own copy since he doesn’t like the way I mark up books or what I do to their bindings). It’s TOO-MUCH. And every time I try to pare it down I feel a paralysis instead. Where to begin?…How to decide?…What to do?…

The physical reality of all the stuff and the TOO-MUCH seems connected to a number of conversations happening right now. I’m still processing the Atlantic article about the revelation that women can’t have it all. There’s a part of me that already knows this word of wisdom a little even though sometimes I still feel a strange urge that it’s my American duty to prove this wrong. After I graduated from seminary I randomly applied to a scholarship/fellowship funded by a church in honor of their minister and got it. It was to go towards graduate studies that would further church and ministry. I remember a dinner with some of the folks on the interview committee, and one of them happened to be a beautiful and successful woman that was the CFO of Bank of America. We were talking about children and family when she said, “It was a hard lesson but I finally realized that I can’t have it all.” It struck me that this woman who seemed to have it all, and even could afford to have it all somehow, felt this way. It was both depressing and bizarrely liberating: Finally I have…permission. I actually don’t need to give in to the seduction of TOO-MUCH – the degrees, the ministry positions, the family life, the publications, the travel, the everything.

At the same time, I’ve always felt like I had to have and do more because of the different standards not only for women, but for Asian American women. An African American brother in seminary articulated it well during the first anti-racism workshop at the school: “Whites only have to shoot for one standard. But we don’t start at the same place. I not only have to shoot for what is considered acceptable for African American men, but to be truly successful I have to reach the same standard that’s set for Whites. This is our double standard.” I also often felt like I HAD to get those extra degrees, read those extra books, do those extracurricular activities…just to be considered on the same level as those in privilege…who had much of life handed them on a silver platter. Which, if you can imagine, kept me busy. But busy was good. I mean, I thought busy was supposed to be good.

Busyness is supposed to be a sign of success. I know that most successful people are insanely busy. But the rub: it’s connected to TOO-MUCH. It was serendipitous to see my News Feed blow up with this article yesterday from the NY Times blog on busyness:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day…I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle…Life is too short to be busy.

I appreciated his point on idleness vs busyness – another of those hard dichotomies that aren’t very helpful towards living the messy, chaos of life, work, and family. But I think he’s onto something in critiquing busy-ness and aiming for the opposite as a means towards balance. For me, busyness was a way to feel – if not accomplished and successful – that I was at least on my way. I was on my way to being a woman that has it all, and in some ways this was more important than balance. Balance was for those less-driven hippies that sit around in communes. I was going to be different. An individual. A successful individual.

Except I know it’s not just me. It’s not just about me. It’s not just me that has an impact on my life. I’m not the only one who has a say in where I will end up. There’s God…but I usually screw up what I hear from God. There’s my parents. My family. My friends. My husband. My job. And now my babies. That’s why I appreciated these responses to Slaughter’s article. Rachel Held Evan’s Sunday Superlatives had links to so many articles but I was drawn to this one by Elizabeth Duffy and her response:

When we have so many choices, we are easily fooled into believing that the outcome of our lives is one hundred percent ours. Even a non-believer must admit, as Slaughter has, as my friend has, that there are other factors acting in our lives besides our own self-will. There are complications with our bodies, with our abilities. There are other people. We are never fully the masters of our own destiny, which is something that I find a complete relief when I pause to think on it.

And good friend Meredith Holladay reminds me in a similar vein as Elizabeth that some of these things that have a say in our lives are good but some aren’t healthy and so they are meant to be engaged in honest ways.

There are problems with the nomenclature, yes? “Having it all.” Do I want it all? Because if I have everything, that’s an awful lot of potential to screw up. Living a life with only half of “it all” already comes with plenty of pressure and anxiety and fear and fullness. So why do I want more of it?

At its most innocent, having-it-all is about fulfillment. At its most selfish it is, of course, about being the best, having more than others, having the most – titles, money, stuff, achievement. I am scared of becoming the person that needs it all in the latter sense of the phrase, but certainly “want it all,” in that I seek fulfillment – not just professionally, but emotionally, psychologically, physically. What that means, though, has been skewed by the latter. To be physically healthy and happy, do I really have to be a size 2 (post-partum, even), muscular, triathlete? To be emotionally fulfilled, do I really have to find, woo, and marry the perfect man and live a life of whimsy and romance? To be professionally fulfilled, do I really have to climb – ruthlessly –to the top of my field, sit on boards, publish, win awards?

I hope not. Because I’d really like that voice to shut up.

So I say to all that which tells me not only that I can’t have it all (because actually who the hell are you to tell me what I’m capable of???) but that I even want or need it all: SHUT UP. I’m going to do this life thing my way – whatever that happens to look like at the moment and no matter how unexpected and absurd it may seem to the rest of the world and even if the craziest situations happen to us – and I’m going to just try to pursue that which I would want to pass on to my children: simplicity, contentment, equality, the TRUTH that the availability of lots of choices is often so overrated and the best Friday night plans usually means drinks (of course, when they’re legal) and breaking some damn-good proverbial bread with even better friends, that credit card debt ISNT worth it no matter what, and that letting go is usually the best way to go about much of life…not only for the heavy and burdensome but even for those things that look shiny and pretty.

2 thoughts on “The Burden of Too-Much: Letting Go of Having It All

  • July 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you for your honestly. I’ve been thinking/feeling similarly.

  • July 23, 2012 at 7:36 am

    Hi Mihee,

    Thank you for this post and for all of the recent cute baby pics. I’ve been wanting to get in touch for some time, but have been busy : ) When I finally went on your site and saw this, I had to laugh. I’ve always appreciated how you’ve fed me spiritually, and realize how much I miss you! Part of my resistance to facebook and twitter and following blogs and such has been about the “too much” of computerized communication, but yours is one I need to have flowing into my in-box! Two recent books I’ve enjoyed (which relate to your topic here) are “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor, and “The Walk” by Richard Paul Evan. If you’ve not read them, you could always check them out from the library, so they don’t become new stuff! “The Walk” is the first in a series – it’s a novel. I’ve not read past the first one yet, but plan to. I expect you are already familiar with Barbara Brown Taylor, but just in case – I think you’d enjoy her a lot.

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