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Enough Already: Exploring the Art of Contentment

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January 17, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Fresco showing a woman who may or may not be Sappho holding writing implements, from Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum

Fresco showing a woman who may or may not be Sappho holding writing implements, from Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum

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.

sydney opera house inside

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.

bird-by-bird-collage

Sonoran Desert Birds by Scott Partridge via Books Outside the Box

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.

pooh

 

34 thoughts on “Enough Already: Exploring the Art of Contentment

  1. regi@regicarpenter.com says:

    your writing is so beautiful. I aspire to write like you..

    Liked by 2 people

  2. jan says:

    As a writer I don’t think I’ll ever be content – there’s always another story to tell. But I want for nothing and there’s a certain peace in that feeling. I wish I could do more for others but I do what I can.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shailaja V says:

    I just love this post so much and I particularly liked the twitter tag you used to draw me here regarding the Sydney Opera House :D May we all aspire for more contentment in our writing. What joy there is to be found in that, to be sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I do feel very classy housing all my page views in an opera house. I wonder how people on Blogger know their blogs are successful – perhaps they measure by how many page views could fit into La Scala.

      Like

  4. Norah says:

    Those are deep questions you ask, Paula, and I too contemplate them. Even more so mid-way through my seventh decade! I shall endeavour to pop in and see what you are thinking and perhaps join in the conversation from time to time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent…you can do the contentment bit and I’ll model the stressy bit…yay…teamwork!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Annecdotist says:

    Interesting topic, Paula, and I look forward to your year of reflection. I seem to have been doing that Bird by Bird thing with my posts about how much of the personal goes into fiction, which is proving interesting to me, although I’m not sure how interesting to others!
    I think contentment is a bit like happiness in that sometimes it disappears if we strive for it too forcefully. That said, approaching the end of my own sixth decade a little behind you, I find myself enjoying more moments of contentment these days.
    PS, loved how you link to your blog stats to the Sydney Opera House – but one thought: perhaps each individual’s visit might be very brief, I wonder if in total they could add up to the duration of a performance.

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  7. TanGental says:

    Splendid Monday read Paula. Just what I needed. Yes, please explore that conundrum of contentment. Most people, me included, who know me would say I’m content and that is largely true. My father agonised about the past, riding a wave of guilt and the future, assuming more guilt trips to come. He was Eeyore. Mum was Pooh. Today was enoug for her. Took me years to really grasp what she was pointing me too. Nowadays, like you watching t he sunset on my sixth Decade, I think the absence of wanting stuff helps. I’ve realised belatedly that stuff, if really essential can help but otherwise having it, wanting it, wondering why I got it, feeling guilty about having it – this is all such a waste. It, my life, is about experiences now. People, places. And if today is about sitting waiting for a car mechanic, so be it. I can peoepl watch the two young mothers ignore their offspring and imagine a scenario for a story. What’s not to like. I am going t o enjoy your journey methinks.

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  8. Ally Bean says:

    To know the difference between contentment and complacency.

    For me that’s the crux of the matter. I look forward to learning what you discover as you explore this topic in 2016. Happy that I found you via #MondayBlogs.

    Like

  9. Judith Post says:

    Oh boy, contentment is a tough one for me. It swings back and forth like a pendulum. Sometimes I have it, sometimes I don’t. The “don’t” times are crappy, but they push me. I dread it when I read my horoscope and it says “This is a time of growth.” That usually means growing pains. Ugh. I’m going to enjoy your blogs this year. Looking forward to your take on contentment.

    Like

  10. I love this. Kept wanting to grab a pull quote from here but wound up simply loving the entire post so much. Yes to everything and thanks for sharing. 💕

    Like

  11. Mary Rowen says:

    Contentment. That’s a big one, Paula. Lovely post, as always, and one I’ll be thinking about in the days to come. Best of luck! xo

    Like

  12. elainemansfield says:

    Yes, these questions interest me and have for a long time. I’m more driven than contented. There were moments related to meditation or being around someone like the Dalai Lama. Other than when my kids were babies and when I took care of my dying husband, I;ve rarely felt my accomplishments were enough. I could do better, couldn’t I? In an odd way, I felt something akin to contentment during deep grief because there was nothing to do other than surrender, weep, and take long walks. It’s lousy to live with this judgmental animus guy (in my case, in my mother’s voice) badgering me. I remember my husband saying when I fretted: “Life doesn’t get any better than this, E. It doesn’t get any better than this.” It was true then. It’s just as true now. Thank you, Paula.

    Like

    • There are times in my own married life I can look back at that way, too, Elaine. I think I understand what you mean about deep grief. Though the death of a marriage is very different from the death of a spouse. I could say much more about this, but a public forum doesn’t really feel like the right place to do so. Still, you should know your comment provoked a lot of reflection on my part.

      Like

  13. Kate Love says:

    Contentment is my word for 2016. I resisted it at first because I was equating it with settling and/or giving up. More research into the word and I’m now feeling comfortable and at home with it. I’m looking forward to following your exploration on this topic. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Like

  14. […] Paula Reed Nancarrow, whose blog tagline is Essays, Stories, Ephemera, talked about working towards an understanding of contentment: what it is and how it is experienced; in her post Enough Already: Exploring the Art of Contentment, […]

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’ve given this a lot of thought since first reading this post and am sorry to say I’ve failed to come up with anything useful, nevertheless, here are a few of my thoughts:
    Contentment is something I strive for and I’m pretty content with my lot for most of the time. I found that by making attempts to rid myself of feelings of envy and resentment helps a great deal. I’m older now, early 60’s, so have had plenty of years in which to practice envy, but time after time, that person I have envied, that one who seems to have everything (and to my discredit, “everything” meaning worldly goods) also has problems greater than mine.
    Couple of years ago I had to give up nursing due to a work injury, this really messed up my plan to get house and home sorted for retirement. How I resented that, and of course, I missed my work, I missed feeling useful. Feelings that are quite normal, people suffer far worse and I’ve got over it now.
    Maybe fully accepting our lot is the answer, doesn’t mean we have to complacent though does it? I will still strive for my new windows, kitchen and lots of other things.
    I can’t help thinking of the difference in what constitutes contentment with life in this first world as compared to those living in the third world.

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    • You have given this a lot of thought. The acceptance / resignation / giving up or “making the best of” conundrum is one of the things people struggle with. And comparatively, there’s always someone “worse off” – though one hopes that the key to happiness and fulfillment is not so material that it depends on what sector of the world you were born in. Given that a lot of people who live with far less than we do are significantly more contented, I am guessing it does not.

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  16. For me, lasting happiness is an abiding contentment with life and who you are. It’s complex, it’s personal, an artistry to be practiced daily. Based on the comments I read, I wonder if the personal perception and feeling of contentment we have changes as we pass through the different phases of our life. I’m looking forward to reading about where your journey on this topic takes you. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

    • “An artistry to be practiced daily.” I like that. And what contentment means – or at least what a sense of fulfillment means – does change over time, as research on aging and happiness by Stanford psychologist Laura Cartensen shows. More on that later. ;-)

      Like

  17. […] (1841) by Richard Allestree and Lady Dorothy Coventry. I had no idea my last blog post had copped its subtitle from a work of Christian […]

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  18. […] So the phrase “Enough Already” came readily to mind when I was trying to decide on a title for the post in which I announced the year’s theme. If I ever turned this blog into a book, I thought, “Enough Already” might end up being a good […]

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