There’s a chapter in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women wherein Marmee encourages all four girls to do whatever they want for several days, rather than having them maintain the usual industrious March family habits.
Jo, the sister who seemed most like me, spent her extravagant leisure time reading in a tree (did I mention that I identified with her?), and found that the unrestrained frivolity of constant reading gave her a headache.
As a 9-year-old reading the novel for the first time, reaching this early plot point was when I realized that Alcott was doing quite a bit of moralizing with her tale of four sisters. What kind of monster would suggest that constant reading could be anything other than joyous?
In the 30+ years since my first reading, I have learned that there is a limit to how much one can read and still enjoy it (although audiobooks have increased that limit quite a bit!). And I’ve come to appreciate the gentle lesson I learned from Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy finding that too much of a good thing is not great. Knowing the perils of too much of a good thing can help us set limits for ourselves.
Right now, we’re surrounded by so many examples of too much. There is too much of the bad stuff, which we can easily recognize as problematic. Too much chaos, too much misinformation (not that there’s a proper amount), too much grief, too much anger, and too much anxiety.
But we’re also seeing so many instances of too much warping good things, as well. Things like:
Too Much Money
Having enough money is a blessing. Having too much money does something horrific to many people. From companies that are prioritizing their finances over their employees and customers, even when they have enough reserves, to individuals making selfish financial choices that enrich them while endangering others, too much money seems to distort priorities.
Too Much Time
Back in early March 2020, when it became clear that a stay-at-home order was coming sooner or later, I can recall looking forward to the quarantine time. My biggest anxiety-producer in the before-times was a lack of time. Between twice-daily time crunches for school drop off and pickup and being pulled in several directions each week trying to get the kids to their activities and myself to my obligations, I thought our enforced slowdown would be a kind of boon.
But having too much time is its own problem. We are dealing with boredom and frayed nerves and a lack of consistency. When things were normal, we had to stick to our routines because we had less time. Having too much time now means we don’t have a routine, and our mental health is the poorer for it.
Too Much Togetherness
Early in the quarantine, I saw some on social media wondering why people didn’t seem to like their families. These folks questioned why anyone was complaining about being quarantined with family. Had the bellyachers married spouses they didn’t like or had children they didn’t want?
But we all need space, even from the people we love most in the world. And that’s not just because HOLY SHIRTBALLS how loud can a person chew?
Being together should be a good thing, but it becomes oppressive when there is no other choice. Too much togetherness strips away the layers of self-protection we build with solitude.
Too Much Solitude
The other side of the too much togetherness coin are the folks who are quarantined by themselves. Solitude, like connection, is a necessary component of mental health, but too much of it is toxic. People riding this out solo are facing more than just boredom or loneliness, but a potentially-oppressive lack of connection. The constant solitude strips away the layers of self-protection we build with meaningful connections to each other.
What to Do with Too Much
Most weeks, my aim with this blog is to offer some clear and actionable advice peppered with jokes and a little bit of reassurance. The problem with too much is that it is very difficult to fix—with the exception of too much money. That is the only one on this list that doesn’t feel oppressive to the person experiencing it, and the only one with a simple solution: give it away. (See Keanu Reeves for an excellent example of this in action).
But when it comes to too much time, too much togetherness, and too much solitude, we feel the toxicity of the abundance, and there is no way to transfer any of our too much to those who have too little.
So how do we handle the too-muchness of good things in this uncertain situation? I honestly don’t know what can solve the problem, but some practices can ease the toxicity:
1. Setting and maintaining routines. Marmee was onto something in Little Women. Keeping to a regular routine is better for our mental health, even if it seems ridiculous to follow a routine when your commute is from the bedroom to the couch.
2. Recognizing the toxicity of others’ too much. We have a terrible tendency to compare our lives to others, so that parents dealing with too much togetherness snap at solo quarantiners for not appreciating their loneliness, or vice versa. You can yearn for something that is currently oppressive to someone else—just recognize that the thing you lack is not a benefit when it comes in abundance.
3. Building in small pockets of whatever you lack. I take our greyhound for a 2 mile walk almost every morning. Much as I love getting a chance to see the sky and scoop Tivo’s poop in multiple locations, this 45-minute walk gives me much-needed time away from my boys and my husband. For those with too much solitude, it’s much harder to build in pockets of connection, but figuring out ways to feel close to people via technology can help make the too much more bearable.
What’s Born of Excess
According to Anais Nin, “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
Something will come of the too much we are currently experiencing. You may, like Nin, birth great art out of excess, but there is no obligation to do so. It seems likely that many people will birth anxiety, resentment, fear, or pain out of their excess. We can see this happening on a daily basis in the news. But such children of excess are not inevitable.
If we act intentionally, it’s my hope that this excess will result in the birth of more patience, more connection, more self-awareness, and more creativity.
We can use our experience of too much to create more than enough of things the world needs.