When everything is on the menu, it takes an awful lot of willpower to say, you know, I’m not really that hungry. Even if you’re really not that hungry. Even if, in fact, you’re stuffed.
This being the season of the cocktail party, I’m unable to think in anything other than food metaphors, but, in this post, which concerns a recent piece by journalist/author Naomi Wolf–she of The Beauty Myth fame–I think an appetizer allegory works. The piece, entitled “The Achievement Myth,” launches with what has now become the de rigeur bashing of Marcus Buckingham’s take on the study The Paradox of Women’s Declining Happiness, emphasizing that, rather than describing themselves as unhappy:
…the women had told the researchers whom Buckingham cited that they were ‘not satisfied’ with many areas of their lives. If Western women have learned anything in the past 40 years, it is how to be unsatisfied with the status quo.
And thank god for that. Thanks to the women who gave voice to their dissatisfaction and drove the changes of those years, we’re free to seek out better: we no longer have to settle for unsatisfying jobs, bosses, or sex lives. And, as Wolf points out, we’ve gotten pretty darn good at pinpointing our dissatisfaction, and, from there, setting our sights on greener pastures. But the lure of better, the implicit promise of better, well, that’s where it gets tricky. Here’s a little more from Wolf:
But the downside of this aspirational language and philosophy can be a perpetual, personal restlessness. Many men and women in the rest of the world–especially in the developing world–observe this in us and are ambivalent about it.
Indeed, the definition of Western feminism as “always more” has led to a paradox. Our girls and young women are unable to relax. New data in the West reveal that we have not necessarily raised a generation of daughters who are exuding self-respect and self-esteem. We are raising a generation of girls who are extremely hard on themselves–who set their own personal standards incredibly, even punishingly high–and who don’t give themselves a chance to rest and think, “that’s enough.”
Enough. It’s a simple concept–and yet utterly foreign. This is the home of the All You Can Eat Buffet, after all. And when you’re told you can Have It All, well, to settle for anything short of that is… to settle. To turn in your plate before sampling the goods at every station is to miss out on your money’s worth.
Wolf suggests we’d be wise to redefine our definition of success beyond the professional and the external, to include
other forms of achievement, such as caring for elderly parents, being a nurturing member of the community, or–how very un-Western!–attaining a certain inner wisdom, insight, or peace.
…Should Western feminism deepen its definition of a successful woman’s life, so that more than credentials can demonstrate well-made choices? I believe the time is right to do so. As markets collapse, unemployment skyrockets, and the foundations of our institutions shift in seismic ways, this could be a moment of great opportunity for women and those for whom they care.
It certainly could be. And while I am in no position to demonstrate how to walk the line between satisfaction and settling, maybe we could take a lesson from the buffet line. That maybe it’s worth setting the same sort of goal in life as we do in the dining room: like the kind of awareness that allows us pass up the mini-quiches we kind of like so we’ll have room to really enjoy the crab cakes we adore, that places us fully in the moment of bliss that is a mouthful of warm brie rather than the distracted did-I-really-just-eat-14-cheese-puffs? variety blackout, that empowers us to skip the eggnog everyone else tries to shove down our throats but that we actually cannot stand, the kind of consciousness that allows us to recognize the spot where we’re full–and to actually stop there and enjoy the fullness.