When someone says “This is as good as it gets,” what connotation does that have for you? What about if they ask, “Is this as good as it gets?”
It may imply that even the most-hyped white picket fence falls short in some way. It may mean that one is experiencing the sublime and that they are wholly aware that they are experiencing a fleeting moment of peak enjoyment in this chaotic life.
What it means depends on who you ask, and probably on the day you ask them.
If you ask me lately, it may look something like this.
Sitting on the banks of a swollen river in a forgotten desert town, exhausted and basking in the sunshine. Soaking up the inevitable consequences of a night that borrows much from the next day, trying to imprint every precious second upon my fallible memory.
“Sometimes I’m afraid that this is as good as it gets.” I can feel the words worm through the soil of my mind, slowly leaving their mark. I stand up for a hug, because I understand this feeling. You could be sitting on a log next to someone you’d like to spend a future with, but also have a gnawing sense you may never see them again. There is nothing else to say. This may be as good as it gets, and one has to wonder if it is good enough.
* * *
It could be a day when there is a vague magnetism pulling from many directions, future and past, north and south. It is a struggle to feel settled in the present, because there is a pile of past-due bills in a mailbox that is no longer yours and there are people in other places who you might like to see for a while.
Or perhaps a morning when the alarm clock goes off, the email inbox is already overflowing, and everything from brushing teeth to drinking coffee feels like a perfunctory function that renders oneself more machine than man. This slog makes admitting that love is the only transcendent thing a tempting but inconvenient proposition. So it’s best to think that maybe just doing your job and briefly engaging in your hobbies and folding your laundry is as good as it gets.
As good as it gets is countercultural and even counter-biological. We are not supposed to accept—or believe—that we have found out how good things can be. It would disrupt our capitalistic striving and rob us of the dangling carrots required for the preservation of species and society. If a bigger house, wedding bells, and the birth of a child aren’t all somehow better than this moment, why keep trying? If Heaven isn’t better than we can even imagine, why bother being good? But also, why not be terrified of the inevitable conclusion.
Just like having little regard for one’s own safety or comfort is a super power, so too is accepting that this is as good as it gets with something other than resignation. Without fear, anything is possible. Without need for aspirational optimism, the possibilities are far broader. The richness of a given moment is much deeper.
Knowing that suffering in solidarity with a like-minded soul is the pinnacle of understanding makes all the riches in the world look more like solitary confinement than a reward for blue blood or hard work. Sitting by a lake a thousand miles from nowhere and watching the last rays of sunlight drip over the horizon with no regard for the hour is as good as it gets, because there you are. The passage of time is neither dreadful nor something to be stopped. Creaky knees and tired eyes fade from hindrance to fact. There are a million more songs to compare notes on, and it feels like you cannot get the words out fast enough. There are a thousand things wrong, but there is one thing right. And that one thing should be plenty, if you let it be.
Are we afraid of something being as good as it gets because it doesn’t seem good enough? It is largely virtuous to expect more and better out of life. But it is also a slippery slope, and maybe we are doomed to spiral in a lifelong battle with contentment, wondering if there is such thing as acceptance that is not complacent.
Or is it because we wonder how long it could possibly last? There is a vague terror at the promise of truly good things, because for many of us they seem to suggest an inevitable letdown or an uncanny reversal of the order we have come to expect. Even having a dream bicycle on order with a six-to-eight-week lead time feels like a temptation of the cruel fate that has written a dozen ironic chapters in my life—which business trip will end in catastrophe, which bus will run me over as I walk across the street to the coffee shop I visit most mornings? “JUST WHEN IT SEEMED LIKE IT WAS GOING TO WORK OUT…” If this is as good as it gets, do I actually deserve it?
Whether we are afraid or underwhelmed, accepting or unbelieving, we only hurt ourselves when we avoid the good-as-it-gets. Refusing to look it in the eyes yields misplaced striving or missing out on what is right in front of you, or both. Then again, misidentifying something subpar as “as good as it gets” is perhaps even more dangerous.
This duality may create a paralyzing conundrum, or it may encourage decisiveness. I, for one, am working on being quicker to recognize the beauty of situations that are as good as it gets while never falling for the myth or mislabel that may lead me down a path of dangerous complacence.
What I cannot do is create an objective definition of the positive and pejorative versions of as good as it gets. But a conversation I overheard this very afternoon in a tiny general store with sighing wood floors and a dirt road out front might shed some light on the question.
The two cashiers were talking, and the lady spoke candidly about her ex-boyfriend, who is “Still the love of my life. I talk about him pretty often, just not with my husband. He knows about him, though.”
And then her coworker asked the obvious question, “Why aren’t you guys together then?” followed by his own litany of complaints about his marriage.
She interjects, “So you guys are in an open situation then?”
“Well, not yet, but we’re working on getting there.”
“Yeah, that sounds really cool.”