What would it take for you to be content? For a long time, I thought all I needed was a loving husband, a warm home, a bunch of animals, and a publication with my name on it. Then the day came when I had all those things, and I found myself wanting more. More animals. Bigger property. More prestigious publications. Money to travel. Maybe some fame?
Along about that time, I came across Sue Bender’s book Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish. Like Bender, I’ve always had a thing for the Amish. Which is strange, given that I’m pretty ambitious and independent-minded: not qualities Amish society encourages. Bender, too, found herself puzzled by her attraction to this plain and simple people. She was an artist; personal expression and individualism were very important to her. And yet she couldn’t help wanting to go and live for a while amongst these people who held to very different values.
Eventually, Bender was able to spend time living with two different Amish families. She participated in their daily lives: gardening, canning, sewing, going to a cattle auction, even attending the birth of a baby. As exciting as it was to do all of these things in the limited time she was there, it would have to be different to do them year in and year out, season after season after season. How, she wondered, could a life of domestic routine produce the contentment she saw on so many faces? About the mother of the first family she stayed with, Bender wrote,
…I had spent my life running away from the domesticity that was the core of [Emma’s] life. … Emma had a clear picture of the right way to be. It is true that she didn’t get to choose it, and she certainly didn’t question it, but freed from the necessity to make choices, her energy wasn’t spent resisting or doubting her lot. She knew who she was as a woman. She knew that what she did mattered. … Emma seemed content. I thought a lot about that. Maybe when expectation matches achievement a person is content. Emma seemed more satisfied than most people I knew who had much more material success. (pp. 76-77)
A while later in the book, Bender elaborates on the theme of satisfaction. “Since all work is honored,” she says, “there is no need to rush to get one thing over so you can get on to something more important. The Amish understand that it’s not rushing through tasks to achieve a series of goals that is satisfying; it’s experiencing each moment along the way” (p. 138). And then she sums it all up in one simple, forceful statement:
Satisfaction comes from giving up wishing I was somewhere else or doing something else. (p. 141)
I knew this applied to my own situation. There I was, enjoying the very things I’d spent the better part of my life wishing for and working toward, and I was off thinking about what I’d like to be doing next year.
Now I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with dreaming about the future, but I’m beginning to wonder if maybe there’s more than one way of doing it. When I was a kid, my dreaming was always happy and playful. I imagined all the cool things I’d do when I was grown up–and sometimes played at doing them–but I don’t remember those dreams’ ever causing me to feel dissatisfied with my life at the time. As I got older, though, it was as if my dreams intruded more and more on my present happiness. If I wanted one day to travel in Africa, I couldn’t be happy living in New York City right now. Or, if I wanted one day to publish a book, I couldn’t be happy right now with a mere magazine article. In my mind, there was a voice that hadn’t been there when I was a child; it said, “If you aren’t working toward this goal right now, you’ll never see it fulfilled.”
I think this mindset plagues a lot of us in contemporary capitalist society. We’ve so well internalized the process of delayed gratification that we spend our entire lives working toward achievements that we never get to enjoy because, as soon as we have them, we’re tantalized by something new, and we feel bound to start pursuing it immediately. We are not very good at enjoying the present moment, no matter how hard we’ve worked for it.
This, I think, is one of many vital lessons the Amish have to teach us. Contentment is not something we will attain through accomplishment. It is not a place where we will arrive after a certain number of promotions or a certain number of weeks on the bestseller list. No. Many people get to those places and discover there is no more contentment there than anywhere else. And that’s because contentment is not a result of external circumstances. It’s rather about our mental and spiritual relationship to those circumstances. It’s about our willingness to enjoy the life we’ve been given today. It’s a state of mind that appreciates the process as much as the product.
The irony is that being content in the present moment can make future accomplishments a whole lot easier. Being happy, relaxed, and patient can make us more creative and more attentive to detail. Ever notice how much you accomplish on your day off? Or how many great ideas you have while on vacation? Working from a place of contentment also makes the whole process a lot more fun.
So, in the end, I’d say that contentment is not the result of hard work, as we so often believe. Contentment is the place to start.
If you’re interested in reading more about the “simple life,” check out these three books:
- Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (1989)
- Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende (2004)
- The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life edited by Scott Savage, foreword by Bill McKibben (1998)