Discontent is woven into the fabric of our daily life. We eat breakfast and wonder why our usual cereal tastes bland. Driving to work, we find out attention drifting to the houses that seem nicer than our own or the beautiful vacation spots advertised on billboards. At the office, we listen jealously as a coworker talks about weekend adventures after we just spent one doing errands. At lunch, we go into a store and watch a super-duper television set we cannot afford. In the afternoon, we hear about someone's promotion and get upset that we are not moving ahead in our careers. By the time we get home again, a dark cloud of accumulated resentments and regrets has overtaken us.
Our consumer culture with its omnipresent advertising pitches is designed to make us always want something more, better, or different. Even in times of national emergency, we are told to go out and shop, as if that will make us feel better.
Yet religious leaders have long advised just the opposite. Quaker William Penn observed: "Seek not to be rich, but happy. Riches lie in bags, happiness in contentment." In Philippians 4:11-12, St. Paul writes: "I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need."
What is he modeling for us here? When you know that you are loved by God and nurtured by family, friends, and community, you can simply be yourself and be satisfied with whatever comes to you.
In his book, The Virtue in the Vice, Robin Meyers, a Congregational minister, writes: "Contentment is not just an 'peaceful, easy feeling' or a way to rationalize laziness. It is a deep, easy-breathing wisdom that knows what can and can't be changed, and more important, knows when to do and when to wait. The contented person watches the world closely, but does not stare it down. She enjoys things, rather than trying to possess them or straighten them out."
Mary Ann's sister Cora is the person in our lives who has done the best job demonstrating the daily benefits of contentment. She has always been a very centered person, untouched by the fads and fancies of consumerism. Her motto is "Live simply so that others may simply live." She remains more interested in all the fascinating things she can do and learn than all the things she can't afford to buy. Her life is rich with friendships and meaningful service. There are other people who are content in our midst, and we must consciously seek them out.
How can you practice contentment? Here are three simple ways.
- Want what you have. This is a basic gratitude practice. Don't take your possessions for granted. Every day acknowledge what just one tool or object means to you and how it improves your life. Make a list of other things you are grateful for at the end of the day, and include thanksgiving moments in your prayers.
- Don't make comparisons. Many of us go through the day comparing our situation with another's, and inevitably, it seems, we come up short, feeling either second-rate or deprived. The Baal Shem Tov, a great Jewish teacher, said, "Compare not yourself with anyone else, lest you spoil God's curriculum." Focus instead on what is unique about you — your God-given talents and gifts. Then whenever you fall into the comparisons trap, say to yourself, "Oh, there I go again, making silly comparisons."
- Accept your imperfections and the "lacks" in your life. Nobody is perfect, and few people get everything they want or even all they need. But we have been assured that none of this matters to God. God loves us as we are, faults and shortcomings included.