January 17, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
Reading and writing are the only spiritual disciplines I maintain with any consistency.
I suppose that for some this is defining “spiritual discipline” rather loosely. But my intuition says to start with what I have. Two weeks ago, I indicated my intention to give a theme to my blog for the year. A theme to help me treat my blog posts as modules in a self-directed curriculum. To explore facets of enlightenment around a particular topic.
It’s nice to know that in 2014, my blog page views could have filled the Sydney Opera House six times, and in 2015, they could have filled the Sydney Opera House eleven times. (Thank you, WordPress Annual Report.) But a performance at the Sydney Opera House lasts a good deal longer than one of my page views. And I’d like what I gain from my writing to have a little more endurance as well.
I largely agree with Jane Freeman’s argument against blogging a book.
I know that blog writing is not the same as book writing; that blog posts are supposed to be short to conform to the attention span of online readers. Even if Google has modified its algorithm to allow its search results to show you where longer, more in-depth content can be found, that doesn’t mean that people look to blogs for such content.
But it seems to me that blogging is an ideal format for examining a complex subject over a period of time. Particularly for writers who might be too anxious or intimidated to do so otherwise – as long as you do so while allowing your perspective on that subject to evolve. What you have at the end won’t be a book most of the time, but it is at least a framework for deeper reflection.
The story that gives Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird its title is by now well known among writers.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Or in my case, blog post by blog post.
What my soul needs to explore this year is the art of contentment.
As I approach the end of my sixth decade, while watching my parents navigate their ninth, I am of necessity doing a lot of thinking about what makes a person feel that their life has had meaning, coherence and integrity, even in the face of loss. Especially in the face of loss. This seems to me more important to my own sense of fulfillment, to having lived a worthwhile life, than checking things off a bucket list.
I will, as I said in my earlier post, feel free to depart from this theme on occasion. I’m certainly not going to make my memoir and storytelling pieces into homilies about contentment. (You’re welcome.) Even if I wanted to do so, that would be difficult.
Contentment is not something I’ve been particularly good at.
In fact, discontent has caused some serious problems in my life, and some very uncomfortable emotional states: envy, resentment, jealousy, bitterness. So please don’t expect distillations of wisdom from my many years of experience in the art. At the same time, the difficulty I’ve had with contentment should assure you that you are not in for a shallow or superficial treatment of the subject.
This is not to say I have not been content. Most of these experiences have come to me unbidden; they are fleeting and precious. And to some extent that is how it should be. To some extent, I am sure, contentment is a state of grace.
I would like, however, to learn how to cultivate contentment.
At work. At home. In my creative life. In my relationships with family and friends. To know how to balance competing goods or choose the lesser of two evils, and then be at peace with the decision. To know the difference between contentment and complacency.
It seems like a worthwhile endeavor, then, to spend a year investigating the nuances of contentment. How we define it – always the first paragraph of any school essay. Whether that definition changes over time, at different stages of our lives. Whether there are different types of contentment – a taxonomy, so to speak.
Do men and women experience contentment differently? Do different cultures? Is the 1% happier than the rest of us? Oh, I have questions, questions! What does it mean to be content with your job, with your parenting, with your health? How many possessions do you need to feel secure? How much does a person need to accomplish in a day? A year? A lifetime?
Along the way I hope to find examples that model how this contentment thing is done.
To know who tends to be content in the world, what contents them, and where that contentment resides. To know when it is easy to feel content, and when it is hard, and how to bridge that gap. To experience a sense of trust in who you are and what you’ve been given. To take that affirmation to heart: I have enough. I have done enough. I am enough.
Do such questions interest you, too?
Enough already, then. Let’s begin. Today.