Enough

There’s a lyric in Hamilton that’s lingered in my head ever since I first heard it: That would be enough.

It seems like a straightforward line. But it brings up questions I’ve rolled over and over in my head and, now, at the end of the year, I find myself dwelling on it again. What does “enough” look like to me? When will I know that I have it?

Some context: In a first-act song of the same name, Alexander Hamilton has been sent home from the war, fired from his post. His wife, Eliza, is about to have a baby, which she’s just revealed to him. She’s imploring him to stay with her and, by extension, to be there for his growing family.

Oh, let me be a part of the narrative
In the story they will write someday
Let this moment be the first chapter:
Where you decide to stay
And I could be enough
And we could be enough
That would be enough

The last line, that would be enough, is repeated a few more times in the story. It becomes something of a running theme, and a question Hamilton has to face again and again: when will he have enough? When can he stop fighting? When can he finally be at peace?

That line breaks my heart a little every time I hear it. (Note: Philippa Soo plays Eliza so beautifully in the original cast; quite a bit of that line’s impact, I think, comes from the emotional weight and nuance that she lends it. )  It haunts me, I think, because it illustrates how complicated it is to get yourself to a place where you can honestly say that would be enough.

I believe this is one of the hardest questions of adulthood. If youth is all about potential and possibilities, adulthood is often about priorities. You’re capable of doing all kinds of things, sure, but you have limited time. How will you choose to spend it? What’s important to you? What are you willing to sacrifice?

When Eliza asks Alexander what enough is for him, I can’t help but imagine alternate storylines. Storylines where he actually listens to her. What if he chose to stay? What if he could let go and find joy in the things he already had? What if he could really see what was in front of him? What would it mean if he chose to sacrifice different things?

Later, in the second act, when Hamilton is serving in Washington’s cabinet, he’s fighting to get approval from Congress for his ideas for a central bank and a codified financial system. Eliza’s father has invited the whole family to his summer home upstate, and Eliza asks him to come away with her. Take a break. It’s a test for him: his career is on the line, but his family also needs him.

He decides to stay in Washington, alone, and try to work out a deal with the Cabinet and Congress. He succeeds, but everything else in his life begins to fall apart. He’s “won,” but he’s alone, he’s exhausted, he’s betrayed Eliza, he’s alienated his family and friends, and his political enemies are circling like sharks in bloody water. They pull him under, soon enough.

What if he’d chosen to go away with Eliza instead? That would have meant risking a lot: if his bill had failed, he’d likely have had to resign in disgrace as Secretary of the Treasury. But would putting the work down for a few months have guaranteed its failure? I’m not so sure.

More times than I can count, stepping away and going for a walk has helped me solve some problem that felt intractable. A half mile from my house, something will often come to me: a line of code, a piece of a wireframe, a finishing touch to make a drawing finally work. Often a change of scenery and some fresh air are exactly what I needed — not only to solve the problem in front of me, but also to settle my frayed nerves. A little distance and time puts things in better perspective.

I wonder: what if Hamilton had realized that stewing in his anxiety back in Washington wasn’t the best way to solve his problems? What if he chose to put the work down and clear his mind awhile? Maybe other approaches would have occurred to him, while he sat there on a porch swing, drinking gin with Eliza and Angelica, watching his kids play.

Or maybe not. Maybe the Cabinet stands against him, he’s forced to resign, and he finds himself back where he started. Would that be a tragedy? It’s hard for me to believe so. He’d be a happily married father with a nice house in Boston and and a thriving law practice. That seems like a pretty good deal. And maybe other opportunities would present themselves later. Maybe the presidency or a Supreme Court nomination would have been within reach eventually. Who knows. (Note: A well-connected, college-educated white dude in colonial America? He could only fail upward. )

But of course, accepting that would have been against Hamilton’s nature. His life with his partner was a good one by any standard — except his own. From his perspective, no sacrifice was too great to leave his mark on history.

That’s what, I think, is so hard about answering that question for yourself. There are so many external and internal pressures affecting our motivations that it’s really, really hard to discern what would actually bring us peace. Knowing what is enough means being able to see underneath, to tune out all those distractions.

The pressures of consumerism and capitalism and the hero narratives in our history books all have a way of creeping into my subconscious. But those are easy to catch compared to my own internal pressures. I seem to hold myself up to an ideal that I can neither achieve nor articulate. It’s so easy for me to draw a portrait of myself as a failure.

In that particular sense, Alexander Hamilton’s struggles feel pretty close to home for me. There’s something I have to prove to myself and I can’t let go until I do — except that I can’t say, exactly, what it is that I have to prove. The goal is always just out of reach. As soon as I arrive at a milestone along my path, I can think only of the next mile. What I have now is never enough, no matter how much it felt, before, like the answer to all my problems, the cure for all my fears.

I have this nagging feeling that if I could form an image, in my own mind, of what enough should be in my life, maybe that could take the place of the other voices whispering in my head. The ones that say if I’m 41 and I don’t have a million social media followers, a PhD, a solo show at the Met, and a Pulitzer Prize, then I might as well stay in bed.

I’m learning, though, that the struggle here is less about finding The Answer than it is about learning to trust myself, to discern what matters, and to answer striving with gratitude. It’s less intellectual than it is emotional. What is enough? Exactly what I have right now. As Eliza put it, look at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

If there’s more that I’m supposed to accomplish, then I have to trust, in the end, that an opportunity will arise when the time is right.

Happy holidays, happy New Year, and may we all follow Eliza’s wisdom in 2023.