The Art of Contentment

Here in the U.K. 28 November is ‘nothing special’. Our Jewish citizens are celebrating Hanukah, and our ex-pat U.S. citizens are celebrating Thanksgiving, but the average Brit is going about business as usual, which probably means more or less glumly, depending on such factors as weather, traffic and what they had for breakfast. The truth is, we are not a demonstrative people and it would be quite difficult to tell whether we are happy or sad just by observing us. Contentment, however, is something else, distinct from states of happiness or sadness. It is possible to be perfectly content while enduring the most appalling circumstances. That doesn’t mean acquiescing in what is wrong, or refusing to work for an improvement. Colluding with injustice is never right, nor should we confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment means, rather, not allowing what is, by definition, imperfect to destroy our serenity and joy. It is a way of transcending circumstances, allowing our inner self the freedom to be.

Serenity, joy, inner freedom, these are all, to my mind, attractive qualities we can cultivate. The art of contentment is to know that they are attainable and allow them to play a more important role in our lives than their opposites. That means a certain amount of discipline, especially over our thoughts. St Benedict was very keen on this disciplining of the mind and attention. He was, so to say, an early ‘positive thinker’, but he never intended that we should do violence to our nature. Instead, we work at recovering our true nature, our true identity, learning how to be content in any and all circumstances. If you wish to put a name to this, you could call it living the Beatitudes.

If we are content, we are grateful; and grateful people are happy people. So I would suggest that if you wish to know the secret of happiness, don’t make happiness your goal, as though this person or that activity could fulfil all your dreams. That is likely to end in disgust and disappointment. Seek contentment instead.

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