Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moving Towards Contentment

    I see them everywhere. Here she is on the sidewalk, old and bent over, makeup garishly applied, smiling at the people passing by with glazed eyes, bobbing to a non-existent rhythm without music. There he is, in his mid-forties and heavy-set, wearing a suit and overcoat, shuffling back to work, his shoulders bearing a loaded burden, his gaze distracted and sad. There she is, early twenties, plugged into her Ipod, muted anger seething from the early crow's feet around her eyes and the tight lips barely holding back a snarl.

    Sometimes they're loud with their complaints, but mostly it's the silence that spells the truth, the concealed frustration of a life that has stopped moving. A life that once made sense or perhaps never did, but now reflects its own futility in the lifeless trudging on an endless treadmill. We're all hamsters, they seem to say, running on a wheel to nowhere.

    Most of us go through seasons in life where we're stuck on that treadmill, whether it's the kids or the family or the career, we wake up one day and everything is exactly the same as it was yesterday. And while this is not unusual, it does not make it any less frustrating. The question then, is what to do. How do we break these chains of melancholy that, if we're not careful, can become permanent? Remember, we're not talking about happiness, but contentment, which are related but substantively different. Studies have shown that a year after people win the lottery or suffer a spinal cord injury are at about the same 'happiness' levels they were beforehand. In many ways, happiness is as much about our personality as it is our circumstances. Contentment however, is something that we can control a bit more, provided we understand a few of the basics necessary for it to happen.

For example, psychologists talk often about the dynamic nature of humanity; that the Self is constantly changing and responding to new stimuli and new experiences. It's our ability to adapt to these changes that determines how content we'll be with our life. Much of our contentment will revolve around our ability to match our adaptions with our own expectations.

Two Questions


There are two questions however, that often get in the way. The first is "why me." It is a statement that speaks to a lack of say in our own life. I may take a job working at Starbucks because I have to pay the bills, but I'll hate it. However, if I can find a job working with kids that not only pays more but provides me with a sense of satisfaction because I love kids, then my adaption to the changes in my life is both smart and controlled. If we only resent the changes, and don't adapt to them consciously by taking control of them, we'll end up with a repressed and angry life.

The second question is more philosophical and yet just as difficult. Instead of "why me", the question is simply "why". Why bother, it's all going to end. It's all the same. No one really cares. Understand that the philosophical pondering behind 'why' is new. The ancient Greeks, for example, would have said, "so what, play your flute!" And it's only possible because we have answered the daily questions of survival that the question exists. But whether the questions is "why" or "why me", the effect is the same: a distancing from understanding who we are and what we need. And as that distance grows, so does our discontent.

The Answer Is…


Not surprisingly, the healthy approach is to understand these changes and to learn how to "dance" with our Self, move in rhythm to the changes in our life and the inevitable changes that occur as we learn more about who we are and the things we need to address. The danger is that in learning who we are, we must face the truths of our weaknesses and our humanity, which often leads to either denial or self-delusion, which in turn stops us from 'dancing', which leads us back to the two questions, which lead back to bitterness and frustration and the treadmill. As is often the case, the culprit is egotism.

    That said, there's no single answer to these questions, no perfect system of religion or psychology that will heal our wounds and provide the answers we are looking for. I know a lot of my friends in the church would disagree with this and they would tell me that Jesus is capable of meeting all of our needs, and that we just need to 'stick to it' or 'be faithful' and we'll be happy. Unfortunately, it's this kind of narrow minded, systematic approach that has caused so much pain over the years. Jesus may be the answer, and God may love us, but that doesn't provide all the answers. If anything, it only begs more questions.

    However, one thing we have learned is that contentment requires a reason for life. We need a reason for our existence. We need a reason to wake up in the morning. And not only do we need a reason, inevitably, we need a focus that is outside of ourselves. As someone who has struggled through depression and despair, I can tell you that it is inevitably egocentric. Depression, ultimately, is all about me. About how I feel. Living in a consumer society doesn't help that either, not when we're bombarded with messages that tell us if we get this or that, we'll be happy. Studies have shown that both psychologically and neurologically, this is complete crap. The act of giving not only touches the pleasure centers in our brain, but the residual impact is far greater than something like 'retail therapy.' The church, when it's done right, provides a wonderful outlet and excellent structure for this basic but often overlooked requirement for contentment. Especially the structure of giving that encompasses most of what a good church does. (Studies have shown that people who are involved in a church are inevitably happier than those who are not. For all the crap that comes out of some churches, like any human institution, there's no better way to ensure that your life is not all about you.)

    Some Practical Tips


    The one thing we can control is our sense of direction. In a society concerned only with survival, that structure is already provided. But for us, that structure is often centered on what we want. I want a house. I want a nice wardrobe. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but a structure built on material things is destined to provide empty rewards. What we need then, is a plan for the next five years that is centered on our passions. Where do you want to be in five years? What do you see yourself doing? What is the thing you love most in life, and how can your life be built around that? It doesn't matter if you're twenty-one or seventy-one, we all need a plan. Now it isn't the Ten Commandments, it doesn't have to be shaped in stone, but we need something to point us in the right direction.

    Two weeks ago, I was feeling a bit adrift, perhaps in keeping with the February blues, and so I set myself out a list of five big goals, and ten lesser goals for the next five years. The result? A sense when I get up in the morning that I'm headed somewhere. It doesn't mean that we suddenly have all the answers or that we don't struggle with the tragedies of the human experience, but there's a deeper sense of control. When we point ourselves towards others, a paradox reveals itself in that is becomes easier for us to look at some of the junk on the inside.

    This Year


    The weather's been odd here in Toronto this past winter, and today the sun is shining, the traces of snow all but gone from the streets. Spring is on the way. What about you? Is this going to be a time of refreshing, or does life seem much as it did last year? My challenge for you is to pull out a sheet of paper and allow yourself to dream. What is it that you love most about life? Who is it that you'd most like to help? Write it down. Write about your passion and make sure you have at least one goal that includes making a difference in the people around you.

In many ways, we live in a world of zombies, don't we, and sometimes those zombies are us. We get lost in an endless cycle of watching TV, going to work, reading the same books and doing our chores and jobs with no life and no forward momentum. We forget that we're dynamic, that we're built to change and for change, that we still have a choice about what our lives will be. My prayer this week is that you'll start the new season with a sense of purpose, that in understanding your passions you'll face down the fears that would hold you in their spell, and that you'll realize the life God intended for you.