On Contentment

Even if you sleep in a room
with a thousand mats,
you can only sleep on one.
— Japanese proverb

A little while back, our friend T at Holy Guacamole ended her post with the question, “Will I be content?” I can’t answer for her, but as for me — probably not.

It’s not that I don’t recognize and appreciate how good I’ve got it. A strong marriage, four bright and healthy kids, a great job doing something I’m good at and (often) enjoy … any one of these blessings is remarkable these days. My kids’ grandparents — both sets — are still alive and happily married, and I get along well with my in-laws. Our ancient Airedale, Boomer, continues to happily nap and munch his way through years and seasons, and our mini Schnauzer, Puck, forgives me for writing in the evening while his tennis ball sits motionless at my feet.

And still it’s there, lurking at the outskirts of thought, the creeping dissatisfaction, the nagging doubts, the hollow ache that, if I rest comfortably in these joys, I’ll miss new opportunities and perhaps greater joys. This fear is quickly accompanied by another, and dull but urgent thumping suggesting that if I do not celebrate what I have, I risk losing it.

Contentment is a blessing — but in those rare moments when I feel at peace with my life as it is, the peace is fleeting because I second-guess it. It seems a fine line between contentment and complacency, between being grateful for, and settling for, what you have.

Discontentment is a curse — but is it worse? At least at my age, when I feel I can do more — not just for me, but for my wife and kids and the world, even — I think perhaps this discontentment is what gets me up in the morning and makes me press forward. If I were content, would I be attempting a book right now? Would I have left Hanley-Wood for the U and now, the best job I’ve ever had? We’d probably still be in Michigan. So much would be different — or rather, exactly the same.

So this discontentment might seem to be the result of the idealistic inspirations (relatively) young husband and father who wants the best world he can make for his family — and who wants his children to see that it is possible to live as you wish and do what you love. It’s a blessing in itself, right? Except …

I spent three years or so working for a daily newspaper in Big Rapids, Michigan. The hours and pay, however, weren’t conducive to raising a family, so I went to work for Ferris State University, first as a multi-purpose writer, then as media relations manager. After three years or so, I started feeling fenced in — like I was out of options at Ferris and in Michigan. Jodi and I decided to move to Minnesota, and I took a job with corporate marketing firm.

But after three years or so, I felt like I needed something more — more creativity in my work, maybe a graduate degree. So I went to work for the University of Minnesota.

I’m in my third year at the U now. The skies are grey, and the wind is cold. Now is the winter of my discontent — where will I seek sunlight this time?

8 thoughts on “On Contentment

  1. Jim,
    I admire your honesty and your own self reflection. The way I see it, if you can wake up every morning and thank God for the “goodness” in your life then there isn't harm in dreaming of other possibilities. It's always the battle of weighing where you are in life against where you want to be. What's the right choice at the right time. Hmmm… can you see others ponder the same thing. Though I think my number is five. 🙂

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  2. Face it little buddy, until you move back here and open a combination Boot shop and Brewery, you will never be satisfied. 😉

    Like a beaver, it is in man's nature to want to change, constantly change his surrounding. Yes?

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  3. I'd draw a distinction between
    “content” and “thankful.” You can be aware of and thankful for how good things are and still be seeking, seeking, seeking. Even mountains grow and shrink and change.

    I have a friend whose grandma used to say, “Your life will never be perfect, but you should always be getting warmer.”

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  4. I'm traveling right now and have had little time to catch up.

    I am relieved every time someone reminds me that I'm not alone in these feelings.
    Thank you Thorp.
    I'm completely content when my car is full of luggage and I'm driving towards the Gopher state.
    T is thankful for that this year.

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  5. Whenever I get content like that, this is the order of events: I look around in contentment, I realize how happy I am and grateful, then I panic after a while…waiting for the first shoe to drop! I don't know why I can't just look at that time as a moment of God's grace.

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