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.

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