Et al. presents: On being content
“Who can really be faithful in great things if he has not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Manhattan is always moving, a surprising quality for an island that is mostly concrete. Everyone seems to have somewhere to be, and from the sky it must be comparable to the frantic bustle of a thriving ant colony. If you’ve ever seen a time lapse of a single city intersection, there’s something hypnotic about the ebb and flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Behind the chaos is a defined order, and from that order emerges incredible feats of innovation, production and ingenuity.
The incredible complexity of a city is equal parts overwhelming and fascinating. But when we’re surrounded by a flurry of business meetings, appointments and Point-A-to-Point-B mentalities, I wonder if something gets lost in the mix.
There’s a certain allure to a simple life – to enjoying the little things in life and taking a break from what sometimes feels like a cripplingly anticipatory existence. If our attention is always locked on what’s happening next, doesn’t that keep us from appreciating what’s happening in the here and now?
"There is much to be said for giving up grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable.” So says Binx Bolling, lead character of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer. Binx embraces a philosophy of everydayness, hoping to live a simple life and enjoy it for what it is, not for what it could be.
This week, I saw the present moment, and it looked strange. It looked strange the way my home looks strange when I’ve been away for a long time, or the way a friend’s face looks strange when we haven’t seen each other in years. It’s the kind of strange that seems familiar and foreign at the same time. The present moment looked strange because I haven’t seen it in a long time.
You see, I’m a planner. I love being a planner. My favorite thing to do is to look to the future and plan, plan, plan. It’s part of my nature, and I’ve always been thankful for it. But a few days ago I realized the risk of always looking ahead: missing the here and now.
Planning has always been my greatest strength. But it has also led to one of my greatest weaknesses. With my thoughts perpetually locked on what might be rather than what is, I struggle daily with worry and anxiety. My plans are my pride and joy, but sometimes they weigh me down like sandbags. They keep me concerned with how I can mold and adjust and reorient my life, instead of allowing me to take a deep breath, let life be and appreciate it as it is.
My life is consumed with dwelling on what has not become, or what has already happened. But according to monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “only this moment is life.” All other moments are either life gone by or life unrealized. To truly embrace life is not to plan, it is to live. If I can find it within myself to relax my grip on life, I think that I will be drawn towards a deeper, more sincere contentment.
You see, I believe being present is the first step towards being content. In his 1912 essay “A Contented Man,” G.K. Chesterton writes that “contentment is a real and even an active virtue; it is not only affirmative, but creative. [...] True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it.” To be content requires participation and engagement with the world around you, and this engagement begins with the here and now.
Of course, engaging the present moment doesn’t necessitate contentment. Let’s return to my earlier example of Binx Bolling. In The Moviegoer, Binx becomes severely disillusioned with his ordinary life, embarking on a vague “search” that he never defined nor completed. His philosophy of everydayness left him deeply dissatisfied.
For some, the everyday might feel similarly uncompelling. We never want what we have; we yearn for the promise of tomorrow, not the reality of today. But maybe the problem was not his ordinary life, but what he focused it on. In describing an ordinary life, Binx describes an ordinary family and an ordinary job and an ordinary house. But is that all there is to an ordinary life? Things?
We must find the purpose in the everyday that Binx saw was lacking. But tangible things will never bring us fulfillment. The contentment we find in the physical world is only significant so far as it points to something beyond this world. The most mundane tasks can be joyful when done in light of a greater, supernatural framework. If I drink tea, I should delight in the taste of the drink and in the warmth it provides me. But beyond that, I should rejoice in the blessings that allow me to own the tea, and indeed, I should be thankful for its very existence.
On a deeper level, if I talk with my friend, I should delight in the joys of friendship and in the unique curiosities of every conversation. But beyond that, I should rejoice in the wonder of community and the ways it has added value to my life.
From a religious perspective, both of these things (and many other things) were lovingly planned and designed by a wise Creator for us. Understanding this perspective provides further purpose and meaning to the present moment. Life begins when we explore, embrace and savor the complexity and depth of the here and now.
Feature sketch by Abigail Jennings.
Questions for further pondering:
1. If we’re happy where we are, what drives us to do more with our lives?
2. Is desiring greatness hardwired into the human consciousness?
3. What do you think are some obstacles that prevent us from being satisfied?