On Contentment

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.

A Crisis of Faith on Easter Sunday

For me, faith was something that was taken for granted throughout my childhood. With my mom being a convert and working for the Catholic church, and my dad being a “cradle Catholic” belief in Jesus, the trinity and my salvation through the Church was always something that I didn’t just believe in – it was something that just was.

Many times, in my current stage in life, I find myself wishing that my faith was similar to what it was back then – not even unquestioning, as the idea of questioning such a cornerstone was something that wouldn’t even cross my mind. I often wish that my faith could be something that imbued every facet of my life, elevated my actions and directed my goals.

In reality, my faith is a constant struggle. It is something that gives me fits and starts, certainly not something that makes my daily motions easier. And I am learning to accept that. Learning to integrate that into my understanding of God, of life after death, and of my role in the lives of those around me.

It is struggle that makes man grow stronger, even if all that this man wants is to sink into his couch and enjoy the luxuries and comforts that the modern, secular society can provide. My crises of faith (which are far more often than I would like to admit) are chances for me to grow in understanding of who the God of my understanding is.

In a time where I have lived with people who I love and respect, people who have incredibly different faith systems from my own, I find that I am unable to sit in comfort with the beliefs that I grew up with. While there is the ever present struggle to believe that someone who believes in a different belief system than me will end up in Hell simply because of that difference, there are so many other challenges that I find myself confronting. The beauty that is present in their beliefs, their rituals and practices, and in their books. The kindness in their hearts and the generosity in their actions. The conviction of their beliefs, as well as their solidarity with me in their own crises of faith show me just how fragile my own religion is.

It is here that I find the struggle to be the most prescient. The conflicts that continually arise between my religion and my faith. For better or worse, I find myself to be a man of deep convictions – whether these convictions will change as the wind does is another matter. With this, though, is the convictions that I have in my faith that contradict what is taught in churches, cathedrals and religious communities. Many aspects of my faith are molded and shaped by the teachings of the Catholic church. At the same time, there are aspects that are shaped by Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and others. Just as many Christian denominations teach that the relationship that we have with God is a personal one, I have found that my relationship with faith is in many ways similar to this personal relationship that I am taught to seek with God. All I hope with that is that it does not become so intertwined with myself that I cannot see God through my own ego and pride.

On this Easter Sunday, I continue to ask myself what it is that I hope for. The answer to that is not one that I yet have, and I am quite grateful for that. I find that the questions encourage far more growth and change than the answers ever do. On this Easter Sunday, I am grateful for a God that allows me to stumble through His challenges of faith, so that I may find Him. For when I do ultimately find Him, I fully believe that He will have His arms wide open for me.

The Prison of My Own Ego

There have been many accounts detailing the dangers of pride and the ego. One of my favorite is the depiction that C.S. Lewis gives of it in The Great Divorce. When the characters go to Hell together, they start off in a group. Gradually, they splinter off into smaller and smaller groups, confined to isolation through their own ego’s.

I find this to be a challenge that I myself face all too often. Through this season of Lent, one of the things that I have tried to do has been to listen to God. I want to say listen to God more, but if truth be told, I am not sure if I have ever truly listened to Him. My ego becomes so loud, that it is like standing next to a waterfall, while trying to communicate in whispers to those standing on the other bank of the gorge. How can I listen to God if I go to such lengths to listen to nothing but myself?

Even in this recognition of my own ego is the danger of thinking that I am “better than” simply because I recognize my own faults – if I have the awareness to write about my faults, then surely that is good enough, right? Recognizing and verbalizing the dangers of my Pride and Ego is so much easier than actually doing anything to change them.

For me, this is the goal of Lent and the Lenten season. While I do believe that there is something to be gained from abstaining from meat, fasting and other ritualistic explorations, the real challenge and area for growth is listening to the messages of God. What is it that God wants me to do? What does He want me to change, so that I can become closer to Him? What areas of my life have I ignored and delayed, simply because they are too hard?

Even when I am aware of the things that God wants me to change, and of the things that I need to change in order to please Him in the correct ways, I often choose not to. Sometimes because I am lazy, sometimes because I believe change to be too difficult, but more often than not, because I believe that I have the answers – that I know what is best.

Letting go and letting God is a saying that I have heard often in life – from my parents, from priests, from AA meetings and a plethora of other sources. Letting go and letting God requires that abdication of ego that I find so difficult, that recognition that I truly need the wisdom of God, and that I cannot rely on my own insight.

As the Lenten season draws to a close, I will continue to struggle with the cascading cacophony of my ego, and I likely will for a long time to come. Perhaps the noise has lessened a bit, and perhaps I have become better at listening to God’s whispers. All I know is that it will be a lifelong area to grow and expand.