This topic is obviously far too complex to cover in a single blog post. However, the concept of contentment keeps on coming up in my life, so I thought I’d share some of the ideas that I’ve been wrestling with over the past few months. My thoughts about contentment are deeply rooted in my particular perspective of the world; someone with a different personality type probably views the subject in a different way. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic as I discuss it in the next couple posts.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” ~1 Timothy 6:6-8
If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard this verse a hundred times. Contentment is well-known virtue extolled in Christianity. Almost everyone can see the value in being grateful for what you have, rather than constantly clawing your way toward the “next best thing.” Most people, if asked, would say that contentment is a worthy virtue.
However, very few of us actually act as if it is.
In the past few years, but especially the last couple months, I’ve been examining myself with a closer eye, and realizing that while I spout pretty words about contentment, I have had a very small, compartmentalized version of it in my head. “Be thankful for what you have. Live within your means. Don’t covet what other people have.” Check. But what about the more subtle signs?
There are many indications of discontentment in my life I’ve ignored simply because they’re the cultural norm. For instance:
“My jeans got a hole in them, I need a new pair.”
“I have to get a set of matching dishes.”
“I feel restless today— I should go buy another houseplant.”
“I wish Zach wasn’t working that night so we could go to that event.”
“Ugh, this weather sucks.”
“Why don’t my students ever turn their stuff in on time?”
“Man, I wish I could go on long trips again.”
“He makes me so angry!”
“I should have had a baby by now.”
All of these statements appeal to a higher sense of what “should” be— as defined by my personal perspective of the universe, with me at the center. And while I certainly believe in high standards (turn your papers in on time, kids!), I am beginning to realize that for me, discontentment rises up when I try to force my view of what should be onto the world. That fantasy world, in which everything conforms to my particular standards, grows bigger and more detailed every time I compare it to reality. And the messy, non-self-centered real world gets less and less appealing the more I feed that fantasy should-be world. The further I go down that road, the more I feel that I can be content... but only when things are as they should be.
There’s nothing wrong with having imagination for something different than the present reality; that’s what inspired me to start traveling years ago, one of the best decisions of my life. But all too often, I use that imagination to create a parallel reality, one that I can control, rather than turning inward and understanding that it’s not my job to construct a gold standard for every aspect of life.
For me, contentment means rejecting my fantasy world. The verb transforms from should be to is. What is happening, right here, right now? God asks us to be content in all circumstances— which is easy for me to grasp in a theological sense, or even in extreme cases, such as when my mom was in the hospital for a month. It’s the day-to-day issues, the little things that I feel I can control, that get me into trouble. I like my fantasy world! It’s just the way everything should be! Why shouldn’t I judge everything against these wonderful ideals?
But God has been nudging me, a little at a time, reminding me that I don’t have to fit everything in my universe into the neat little boxes I’ve created. I am not God— my standard for the world is not the authoritative one.
That is hard for me for me to accept and practice. Really hard.
I work on it in baby steps:
“My jeans got a hole in them. I wonder if I should get a new pair?”
“I would like a set of matching dishes, because I think it looks nice.”
“I’m restless today and feel like buying a houseplant to cheer myself up. Will that really cheer me up? What’s the deeper issue here?”
“I could go to that event without Zach, but it wouldn’t be fun, so I’m going to stay home.”
“This weather sucks, but it’s just a season.”
“I wonder why this student forgot to submit her paper.”
“Sometimes I miss traveling a lot. I appreciate that season in my life, but I’m in a different season now.”
“I feel angry when he talks like that. Is this something I should talk to him about, or am I just trying to control him and hold him to an arbitrary standard?”
“I’m sad that I don’t have a baby, but I know that right here, right now, is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Living out this shift in perspective is a daily discipline, and a very counterintuitive one. But letting go of my fantasy should-be world is a breath of fresh air, an unclenching of my fists, a kind of waking up.
Being content doesn’t mean twiddling your thumbs and never taking action. Contentment is a basic state of being, a deep kind of peace that keeps you rooted as you make decisions about what you are going to change. In my next post, I’ll talk more about how I’ve been practicing contentment with my possessions.