I should clarify what the title hints at – here, I will not necessarily be talking about contentment as a concept, but how it manifests in my own life. I do so in order to better understand why I act the way I do, and I do this for my own benefit. If you would still like to read, please do, but I ask that you not forget who this essay is for – any pertinence it may have for you is a coincidence, albeit a happy one.
One of the first things that I realized when trying to understand why I do what I do is that, while I certainly spent too much time experimenting if it was actually the case or not, my life cannot find purpose through the pursuit of happiness, as defined as hedonism. Where, then, do I find the motivation to achieve? (Whether achievement is a worthy goal is a conversation for another day). For many years, I believed that I kept in my search of achievement in order to find contentment – to find joy in the knowledge that I am satisfied with where I am, literally and otherwise. However, as I have tried to pay more attention to the actions that I take, these very actions hint that this is not the case, and that no level of achievement will satisfy – no earthly pleasures will give me the contentment that I so vociferously strive for.
If contentment, for me, can be defined as the satisfaction with what I have achieved and the dissipation of striving for something more, for something greater, than what is it that prevents me from coming to the end of this striving?
There are many items that I could point to within our society at large that play a role in this never ending striving. It is not these, however, but my own idiosyncrasies that I wish to explore here. I think perhaps the strongest factor preventing me from coming to the end of this road is my desire, sometimes verging on need, for external validation. This began at a very young age, with my behaviors (usually) in line with my parents and other authority figures, as doing what they wanted was the surest way to garner that external “pat on the back.” While I will certainly always seek the approval of my mother and father, whom I love more than all my earthly possessions, it is not their approval that now drives my continual striving. In many ways, I now seek an internalized definition of that same external approval – an incredibly pernicious development. No matter the level or excess of praise that I receive from others, it will only raise the bar that I have built within myself. This continual raising of the bar pulls me up along with it, but the unintended consequence of this is that, at some point in my life, a noose seems to have manifested on the bar; as I climb towards whatever subjective definition of success I have created, the slack in the noose disappears.
Following this, there is the obvious next question: if I am able to recognize this bar within myself, why not simply stop grasping at it? At the core, I think it is my belief that in letting go of the bar of success, there will inevitably be a drop, and this drop will lead into the realm of mediocrity. And of what use is contentment if it is simply mediocre? How can I find a contentment that allows me to let go of the bar and yet still not find myself drowned in the sea of mediocrity? (The elitism that I sense emanating from this sentence is something that I hope to confront one day).
Where is the answer to this question? I am not sure, but I sense that it lies in my desire for external affirmation and praise. I do not believe that the answer is in destroying this desire within in me, but finding a way to redirect it. It cannot be defined by me, as I will always find a way to shift the definition in order to never end my search. It cannot be a search that lies within society at large, for the dangers of seeking approval from the capricious nature of “society” is one that finds itself acted out again and again. I cannot even seek it from my loved ones, for this will make the relationships into a unidimensional act, with no room for the multifaceted nature that a true relationship provides. At the end, I believe that I need to seek approval from God – under which definition of God, and how to do this remains a mystery, but a mystery that fascinates me.