What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky

The inescapable feeling of consumerism in the United States is nothing new. For decades, society’s fixation on buying products has remained locked in a forever spiral with outside forces determined to convince people that they need products in order to feel happy. What has become uncontrollable is how this fixation has affected our culture on a widespread level. Heather Havrilesky’s collection of essays, What if This Were Enough?, explores a culture consumed with consumerism, and implores us to look around and acknowledge what we already have.

Havrilesky is best known for her “Ask Polly” advice column in The Cut, in which she often advises her correspondents to look inward in order to resolve conflicts by blending occasional tough-love feedback with the reassurance that they have, or are, enough. She is quick to absolve and forgive the self-blame her correspondents claim. What If This Were Enough? asserts that, while society at large is not completely to blame for its desire to overachieve or over-purchase, these desires will have more direct impacts on our lives than they will on the trend of consumerism.

From the introduction, Havrilesky insists that we, as a culture, have enough and do not need to constantly consume to achieve satisfaction. She invokes important sociopolitical points to put our compulsion to buy in perspective: “At a time when our freedom is increasingly threatened by the spread of fascism, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the ravages of climate change, it might behoove us to analyze just how broken our culture has become and just how poorly it serves us.” Throughout the collection, she shifts her narrative lens to allow readers to zoom out from the trends, behaviors, and phenomena she dissects.

Even in essays where it seems like her chosen lens does not serve her point, Havrilesky masterfully explains that, no matter how virtuous our choices are, things ultimately fail us. “Delusion at the Gastropub” contextualizes foodie culture against income inequality, food scarcity, and environmental consequences in a way that feels applicable and snappy, as though it could be shown to an “offending” (foodie) party to discredit their choices. However, “The Smile Factory” mocks society’s insistence on personal positivity by linking her individual experience of her father’s sudden death to John Updike’s Rabbit novels. With the inclusion of these more personal essays, the collection becomes more than a derision of consumerist culture, and we are left understanding that “enough” is sometimes all we get.

Though Havrilesky’s analyses do not include alternatives to these consumerist cycles, her thesis that we have the answers within ourselves to break these cycles endures. The titular question is both rhetorical and a call to action, though the author refuses to suggest how society should fix its ills until the meditative epilogue in the last passages of the book: “We must reconnect with what it means to be human: fragile, intensely fallible, and constantly humbled. We must believe in and embrace the conflicted nature of humankind.” Her personal accounts validate her refusal to tell her readers what to do, because she herself is just as clueless as her readers are— for better or worse.

This collection of essays felt particularly fitting for a year when the urge to consume as a means of self-satisfaction felt even more unavoidable than usual. What If This Were Enough? is a vital read for anyone who wonders why they are being told they need more, or feels inundated with the need to succeed, or just wants to reconnect with the barest elements of being human.

On Longing

When I lost my full-time job in May, I told myself I would spend more time writing and taking pictures. I have done some of that, but not as much as I expected. To provide a brief update on what I’ve been doing instead for the last four months:

  • Taking a long bus ride to and from my part-time job, staring out the window and longing - the same way I’d ride public transit when everything was normal.
  • Spending some of my idle time longing for the ability to “pretend that ‘this,’” as in, the pandemic, “is a vacation,” per my therapist’s suggestion. Playing a lot of Mario and Stardew Valley to try and manufacture that kind of peace of mind.
  • Roller skating around the Lakeside rink, or on the asphalt in Prospect Park, and having a really good time in between moments of longing for that person’s moves, or those skates, or that pair of yoga pants, or that hair color, this, that, or the other.
  • Doing things like setting up ant traps in the apartment and longing for the house I grew up in, which my dad sold in June. Longing for the ability to see my family again without something resembling terror or guilt.
  • Ripping through novel after novel, longing to put out something as tangible, as “real” in the world, as the book that’s in my hands. Writing and immediately deleting what I’ve written while longing for something resembling self-confidence.
  • Taking pictures that have not stuck in my brain, and looking at old pictures like the grass picture above. Longing to bury myself in them, to stick my nose in the sap of a foreign tree, to find moss in my pockets when I get home.

There is a pattern here!

Yesterday afternoon I read a wonderful piece by an author whose words have been a salve in this tumultuous time. Heather Havrilesky writes the Ask Polly column in The Cut, which is also sent out via Substack. I recommend her collection of essays from 2018, if you want to read her work in book format. I bring up yesterday’s piece because it had a number of good quotes, this one being the most memorable to me:

“You can’t write anything unless you’re honest. But you think that when you’re honest, it’s disgusting, because who you are is, at heart, disgusting. You have to start to chip away at that belief, starting now.

Instead of viewing that as a horrific task, I want to suggest that we enter this house of mirrors through a door that says THIS WAY LEADS TO JOY. Imagine joy while you’re examining your shame. Imagine a joyful life as a person who feels good and isn’t ashamed of herself in the slightest. Imagine that you actually deserve happiness. Pry open your brain and stick that concept in there.”

I want to examine this kind of longing I’ve detailed, because I’m questioning how much of it is actually longing (OED definition: Have a strong wish or desire. “She longed for a little more excitement.” That’s the actual example given, I didn’t make it up). It’s likely that I will be thinking and writing about longing, in some way, for the rest of my life. I can make my peace with this, because I think longing, or at least wanting what you can’t have, is one of the unspoken truths of every single human life. Writing about longing is as inexhaustible as writing about love - though distinct in some important ways.

Longing isn’t necessarily passive, either. A lot of my longing takes the form of being angry or sad that my life or physical appearance or resumé or apartment or whatever isn’t a certain way. This negativity can sometimes be a motivator (I was jealous of all the Instagram roller skaters who can do seamless transitions and I wanted to improve my own skills, so I got up and did it), but often it holds me back (see above example re: self-confidence and creativity). I am inclined to ask you to listen to My Own Worst Enemy - the song doesn’t actually add anything to this newsletter, but it’s what this kind of self-doubt sounds like to me; the song also rocks.

The thing about longing, however, is that it has a limited shelf life. It’s one thing to constantly want more for oneself, i.e. “chasing one’s dreams,” but it’s another thing entirely to be mired in those dreams. In the fiction I’ve read, I feel as though a character who does nothing but long and yearn is pigeonholed into moping their story away pathetically. In real life, there’s only so much longing I can do before it starts to become self-pity, or worse, self-flagellation. Many of Heather’s Ask Polly missives cover what I call self-flagellation under a broad “shame” umbrella. For most of this spring, I had a note on my bulletin board that read, “LOVE MATTERS. SHAME BLOCKS LOVE,” because of how purely it encompasses this battle in my head.

I’m not saying that now is not the time for longing or working for a better world. The world has left much to be desired, as of late! I’m not prepared to write about how horrible everything is, in countless ways, so I’m going to sum it up with this evergreen cartoon. What I am saying is that, at times, my longing for what I can’t do gets in the way of my ability to do the things I can do.

This is my urge to keep doing the things I can do. By writing this little anecdote about something I long for on a regular basis, I am actively combatting this negative feedback loop, even if that combat feels like hobbling down a quickly-ascending mall escalator at breakneck speed. If I can do something useful with my longing, I don’t feel like I’m “wasting my time” - whatever that means. There’s a lot of work I have to do behind the curtains to work at chipping away at the self-aggrandizement complex I have spent twenty-five years polishing, but I’d rather talk about the picture at the top of the page.

I’m including this picture because I love to photograph grass and other green things, and to point my lens at the ground and record where I’m standing. Much like writing about longing, it’s likely that, for the rest of my life, I will take pictures like this, even if I make work focused on some other project, which I intend to do. Taking pictures like the one above is my bread and butter.

I chose this particular grass because it was important to me to remember how the grass looked that morning. I woke up in Penrith, in the Lake District of England, alone in the middle of an off-season boutique hotel room. I had booked one night in advance, but upon arriving I decided to take out a little (more) money from my savings account to spend a second night, both because I was getting over a stomach bug I brought with me from London and didn’t want to desecrate a hostel bathroom shared with other travelers, but also because it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

A few people told me that a trip to the United Kingdom in January wasn’t a good idea. I’ll allow that some of the places I visited on that trip might be nicer in warmer weather, but I loved how Penrith, especially, looked in the winter: the misty mountains; the fog lingering over what felt like endless foreign pastures; a lake so still it was hard to believe it wasn’t glass. I think about the quality of quiet I found out there, and what it was like to walk along an early morning field in that specific part of the world. This might look like any of my other pictures of late afternoon grass, but if you look closely at this image, you’ll find crystals of a cool morning frost. That frost, that fog, those permeable facts of nature, often disappear when you look at them too closely - not unlike how longing can change in shape over time.

I added this picture because I want to take my work in the direction of this act of investigation. I want to hold my work, both written and visual, under a finer lens. I want to define an intention a little more distinct than, “I am doing all I can do right now, because I don’t know how to do anything else, and doing this makes it easier to exist on this planet in 2020.” I want to collect of every “green” photograph I’ve made and put them away for a while, no matter how much I love them, in order to intentionally work on something goddamn else for a change. I want to have an original idea and have the faith to see it through to fruition. Mostly, I want to put things out into the world, even if they are old anecdotes full of longing and wishing and hoping and wist.

Whatever I do, even when it feels impossible, I want to do it with love.


For the last few years on May 11th, I’ve used Instagram to pen a sort of letter to Lowell, my high-school boyfriend who passed away when we were twenty. I’ve done this because the main thing that has made his death easier to cope with is remembering how positive and happy he was as a person, and how much he just loved life. It seemed like being unhappy was not in his vocabulary. His nickname was, honest to god, Mr. Sunshine. 

I’ve written to Lowell about how his loss has impacted me, and how I’ve been trying to stay positive and embody his spirit. I’d write about what I’d want to show him in my life, and what I’d want his input about. This year I want to tell him about Tyler, a Yankees fan who was at one point a spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street, and what I’d give to see Lowell talk to him.

My grief is different now. Lowell’s death was the first loss that impacted me in a significant way, and while I’m not going to compare losing him to losing my mother, the coincidence of Mother’s Day falling on the day before the anniversary of Lowell’s passing has compelled me to write. 

Yesterday was the first Mother’s Day I wasn’t able to call my mom, or send a gift, or go home and visit her. I was understandably dreading the days leading up to it (being inundated with internet ads that shouted “don’t forget about Mom” was pretty taxing), but all day yesterday I was met with texts from friends sending me good vibes, well wishes, and lots of love. My dad sent my sister and I a photo from Mother’s Day in 2014, when the four of us went to the Met together. I went on a long walk with Caiti in Prospect Park, I made chocolate chip waffles like the ones my mom would make me. I did lots of things to feel better, and they helped a lot, and today I woke up with the same mom-shaped hole in my chest that I’ve had for months. 

One of the toughest realizations I’ve had in the middle of this pandemic is how badly I feel like I need a mom. I miss her every day, not just Mother’s Day. I will probably have to be socially distant from people I love when her birthday in July comes around, and possibly for the anniversary of her death in August; I will probably miss her every day in the interim. I don’t say this to detract from everything my friends and family have done, I say this to emphasize how grateful I am for it, and how much I need it.

At the tip of the iceberg, I miss the ability to call her and talk for hours on the phone (or, if she missed my call, how my phone would light up with her picture and the ringtone I set for her, “Happy” by Pharrell). More than that, I miss the ability to call my mom crying and not have to explain what was wrong until she’d told me that, no matter what, it would be okay. Often, I think I am a complete failure for not constantly being able to “be strong” without her, how when I miss her I feel like a little kid again, and how I can’t escape that feeling when I come across music or pictures or other things that remind me of her. It is very hard to convince myself it’s going to be okay right now. 

It is even stranger to explain or rationalize individual grief in the context of the pervasive sadness where I live. I read a figure from Paul Newell that New York “has had 7.44% of all COVID-19 deaths (and 8.1% of cases) worldwide,” along with the tweets about how “the United States is experiencing the same amount of deaths as 9/11 every (x) days.” In writing this piece, I’m not trying to assert that my sadness is worse than anyone else’s - while my loss is significant to me, it is minuscule compared to the scale of how many people have lost someone in the last few months due to COVID. The grief we are experiencing on a planetary level is at times overwhelming, and I am so fucking sad about so much.

In the past I have been able to make sense of grief by taking pictures and finding material nostalgia. A couple of weeks ago, I read this article about Minivan Rock, a genre described as “Y2K-straddling equivalent to the smooth soft rock that was similarly ubiquitous on radio playlists of the mid-1970s to early ’80s.” Basically, it was a list of the most common radio hits from my childhood. There were only one or two songs I didn’t recognize by title, and when I listened to them, I realized that I’d heard them dozens of times before. I even knew the choruses of some of them. Today I sat down to write because not only was I thinking of my mom and Lowell, but also because I was nostalgic for all the days in the middle of spring that I spent in my hometown, listening to these songs as I drove around.

Having an artistic process about loss, memory, and longing has taught me that it’s easier to make work about missing places and things than it is to make work about missing people. However, it’s also taught me that they’re inseparable: all of my photographs of places I haven’t been in months or years are imbued with the memories of those who were there with me, in person or in spirit. Whenever I write about a picture I’ve taken, I end up writing about my most prominent memory of that place. The photographs in Big Empty of the baseball field, floodlights, and parking space are about the time I got to spend with Lowell, watching him play baseball or driving around with him.

What I don’t talk about, when I talk about Lowell, is how depressed I was after he died, and for how long. It was the first time I’d lost someone so close to me. I look back on being able to come out of that depression after Lowell died as a huge personal success. I wouldn’t know that kind of sadness again until I was putting my life back together after losing my mom. I’d be lying if I said this grief was the same (sometimes it seems that grieving my mom has only gotten harder as time has gone on), but I know that in time it will get easier. 

Already, I have been finding positivity in moments of grace and benevolence. Having so many people reach out because they were thinking about me is not lost on me. I am very lucky to be as loved as I am. I’m choosing to take stock in little things that remind me of the people I’ve loved and lost, little things only I would recognize. Last year on May 11, at the Garry Winogrand show Caiti took me to, there was a photograph with a LOWEL theatre marquee in the background, and it made me think of my friend. Yesterday, the Brooklyn Public Library ebook app informed me that I was next on the list to borrow When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, who was one of my mom’s favorite authors, and I couldn’t help but feel my mom’s presence in what was probably a grand coincidence. 

Any sentence I could write about how integral my mom was to who I am as a person would not do the sentiment justice. I’m especially aware of my mom’s presence as I take pictures - I imagine her feedback, always overflowing with support, never punitive in her criticisms. It’s been difficult to keep at it without her around, but the knowledge that I’m where she would want me to be, doing what she would want me to be doing, surrounded by people who love me, is enough for the moment. Even though the world is a pretty bleak-looking place right now, I am aware that this is temporary, and that even when I can’t put them directly in my line of sight, there are in fact better things ahead.

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