Contentment depends on a lot of things, but most of them relate to who I am, not what I have.
That struck me very powerfully when I saw villagers in Indonesian West Timor, one of poorest regions in my part of the world. My wife and I watched fisherman with their nets, villagers sitting and standing around talking, friends gathering around a rare TV at somebody’s home – and some lessons about happiness and serenity have remained with us.
For most people, contentment depends on our attitude. We can live without technology, with poverty, a disability, or as a survivor of trauma, and still find contentment – but only if we are able to embrace our lot or have found healing (which can be much the same thing). This means that peace and contentment are probably out of reach for most people who are living with paranoia, for homeless or starving people, or for those who have not worked through unsettling news or trauma.
Contentment is also fragile. When I’ve just finished a good meal, get a new book in the mail, or have just posted a new blog, I feel contented. But our hungry appetite, eyes and dreams soon want more of what gave us temporary satisfaction.
I’m often glad that I am not a goal-oriented or –driven person. But that’s only because I am me: I get a lot of peace and enjoyment from my relationships with people: caring, helping, visiting, listening, teaching… That to me is contentment. Really driven people quickly tire me out!
But I am very grateful that contentment does not depend on being like me. How boring our world would be.
My wife is a goal-oriented soul, but thankfully not of the kind who wears me out. I’m thankful that she gets her contentment not from reaching the sometimes impossible goals she sets herself, but from the journey. She enjoys few things more than a good debate and will often assume the side of the weaker argument. No wonder she loves Q&A on ABC-1 (I do too, but can also happily fall asleep during the later evening!) Give me a book that sets out the different aspects of an issue, not the spectacle of people in real or mock dispute, sometimes saying outrageous things.
My brother finds contentment in a world of science, physical realities, scepticism, agnosticism – and a few extras like music. It seems to me that he respects me but that he could never find fulfilment in my world which is based on a heritage of trust, spiritual experiences, and charitable and self-sacrificial Christian commitment. Our lifestyles, values and families may be quite different, but hey, I see a lot of contentment in both our camps.
For most people I have met, contentment is a choice. The great Christian teacher and missionary Paul was (from what we know) poor, celibate, and without a fixed address. Yet he clearly lived by what he urged on his understudy Timothy: Godliness with contentment is great gain… If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. If we learn to be content with life’s basics, we’ll enjoy everything else as a bonus, from music-making to meeting people. And you don’t even have to be a Christian to make that choice.
Most of my life so far has been quite full of sunshine, even though I’m not known as a burbler or enthusiast about that (or much else)! Like everybody, I’ve been through a few tough patches, and can say that during these dreary times, my Christian faith has been my compass, reminding and with the support of my family enabling me to stay Godly and be content.
But many of the people I know who are not Christ-followers have also been able to choose to hold their course and to add up their blessings as well as their troubles. That’s how to find contentment.