In the old days, when my students asked me how to tackle a one-word abstract essay title like ‘Contentment’, I used to tell them to use a tin-opener, by which I meant questions which began with interrogatives like Who? When? What? Why? How? That was in the days before the internet was universally available and Wikipedia took the hard work out of research, to the dismay of some teachers who became adept at spotting plagiarism.
However I am not averse to using modern tools, so of course I googled ‘contentment’ like the rest. And what a plethora of useful quotations and references appeared before my dazzled eyes, including an article by a Zen Buddhist which resonated with me. I found that sages throughout the ages from the prophets to Socrates and Gandhi were in favour of contentment. Indeed they exhorted their audience to pursue it as one of the highest virtues.
I found only two notable literary men who did not rate contentment highly, and both of these were American. The first – Josh Billings – was a 19th century wit and new to me. He said: ‘Contentment is a kind of moral laziness. If there want ennything (sic) but contentment in this world, men would not be any more of a success than an angleworm is.’ While I am not familiar with the qualities of an angleworm, I get the drift. There speaks the American entrepreneur in pursuit of the American dream. Men like him made America the superpower it is today, for good or ill.
The other notable dissenter was Eugene O’Neill. If you are familiar with his plays, you will know young Eugene was not a happy bunny. This is his view: ‘One should be either sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers.’ Oh, dear! This puts me in mind of that poem by Yeats which begins: ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire…..’ This is surely a young man’s view of the old. We U3A creative writers are not like that. Not yet, anyway. So perhaps O’Neill has a point. We don’t want to spend our days in a warm sty doing nothing but eating and sleeping. If we did, we would not have joined the U3A.
In our time HH the Dalai Lama in his analysis of the evils of the world does not prescribe a universal conversion to religion, neither to Buddhism nor any other, but urges on us a spiritual revolution, listing the virtues the world cannot do without as: love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, and contentment.
But what is contentment and how do we achieve it? The simple answer is perhaps a feeling of happiness and satisfaction with our lot in life. A simple answer but not an easy task. To achieve it we don’t need to get what we want, but to learn to want what we get. I do not expect children and young people to be content. On the contrary, if they are not dissatisfied and ambitious they are unlikely to achieve anything in life. Young people should want to change the world and improve their own circumstances in it. We don’t usually approve of kids who sit back and live on Daddy’s wealth, do we? A certain grit in the oyster is necessary for progress.
I was not content as a child. Of course I had moments of happiness but in general I could not wait to grow up and be free of the control of adults. Then I would be happy, I thought. But no, there was always something more to achieve, another goal to aspire to, and I did not have the talent for being satisfied with enough. I wanted more. This is a common situation in our society, where advertising and the pressures of opinion make us dissatisfied with our looks, our possessions, our status. We live on a treadmill and only the very strong-minded can step off it and follow their own drum.
Learning to want what I have has taken me a lifetime, and I am not quite there yet. Probably I never will be, and to be honest I’m not sure I want to be completely content. That would imply a retreat from the world and indifference to the suffering around us and on our screens every day.
If we have the basic necessities of life – reasonable health, food, shelter, warmth, companionship and (for me) books, we can learn to be content without great wealth. To be content is to count our blessings, to be satisfied with just enough, to be happy with our lot, to enjoy the company of friends, to be at ease in our surroundings and to find occupations which give us a feeling of achievement.
The Greeks had a word for it, you won’t be surprised to learn: ataraxia*. For the Epicureans, that much misunderstood and maligned community, it was ‘the only true happiness for a person. It signifies the state of robust tranquillity that derives from eschewing faith in an afterlife, not fearing the gods because they are distant and unconcerned with us, avoiding politics and vexatious people, surrounding oneself with trustworthy and affectionate friends and, most importantly, being an affectionate, virtuous person, worthy of trust.’ That more or less sums up my own point of view.
The last word, however, goes to that Roman sage, Cicero, product of a culture better known for its hedonism and warmongering. Although I am not a gardener, I know what he meant by this: ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.’
With thanks to Paul Bailey for this insight*
Christine Hawkridge was made Chair of Universiy of the Third Age in June, 2013. She leads three Buddhist philosophy groups, writes and publishes novels. She also works with Victim Support and Amnesty. A recent interview can be found on the latest edition of Clarion online.