“There’s a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: ‘Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied.”
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I’ve been thinking a lot about lottery winners. Every time I see those billboards with their LEDs displaying some absurd amount of money, I start fantasizing about what I could do with that kind of fortune. I could buy a house, start a business, pursue with full vigor all of my passions. Maybe even discover some new ones I did not yet know about. If the numbers creep higher – crossing the line from absurd to …more absurd, I guess? – I might spend two dollars or even five just to give myself the opportunity to win it.
Yes, I know the math. I will never win. But it’s fun to imagine. And I said I was thinking about lottery winners, not about riches per se.
A strange thing happens when someone wins the lottery. It turns out, if the winner was already content and happy, they more or less go on being content and happy (provided they make intelligent choices with their newfound wealth, of course). But if the winner was previously discontent or even depressed, the striking change in their bank account balance does nothing to improve their emotional lives. They are happy for a little while, and then their depression becomes all the worse. There’s a lot of debate about what mechanism drives this fact. But this is one of those rare instances that the why matters less to me than the what: when the entire makeup of your life is changing, it’s your outlook, the attitude you held before your life changed, that is somehow stable. As Socrates said, “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” (Yes, I am pretentious enough to quote Socrates.)
I want to be married. I can think of the few times in my life where I’ve felt understood and valued, and there is hardly a better feeling. She gets me. That’s so cool. And I imagine all of things we could build together, this faceless woman and I. A home, a family, a beautiful life replete with blessings and challenges that are far beyond anything I can possibly imagine. What restless creativity will she inspire in me? Will my own spirit contribute to her passions like a cool breeze to a sunny day? Two people can draw out of each other so much more than what each one can pull from themselves. What a beautiful thought.
Maybe someday I’ll win this romantic lottery. But it’s abundantly clear to me that the best way to prepare for such riches isn’t to start saving for a ring, or a down payment on a house, or to build up my credit rating (Note to self: those are all good things. You should probably start doing those, too). The best thing I can do for my future wife is to be content with my life as a single man.
To be content is to say, I may be lacking, but I am not incomplete; I may want, but my joy will not suffer for my wanting.
If my expectation for my wife is that her vows to me will somehow transform me from incomplete to complete, then how will I regard her if I go on feeling incomplete? Am I not priming our lives for harm if I lay that expectation at her feet? And if I cannot now preserve my joy because I have an unmet desire, how can I possibly lay down my preferences for someone else day in, day out, and go on loving them with tenderness and patience? No, to practice contentment is to practice many of the virtues that lead to a successful marriage.
But acknowledging the importance of contentment does precious little to make us more content. So how can we develop this trait in ourselves? How can we train ourselves to be more content?
1) I think we need to first acknowledge that having something does very little to make us happy. The simple understanding that we’ve been fed a lie – that relationships will make us complete, that more money equals more happiness, and so on – takes some of the expectations away from those things. If we no longer believe that getting married makes us whole, we stop pursuing marriage for that reason.
2) Root out the sources of discontentment, and change your thinking patterns about those things. Are you dissatisfied with your job? Why do you think your work should bring you satisfaction? Can you change careers, or is there something you can do to proactively find more satisfaction at work? In the day-to-day battle with discontentment, you are the only person making yourself a victim. Remember, you can be content and still want things to be different. Just stop being dragged down by that desire.
3) Determine your shortcomings, and then stop giving a voice to the ones that don’t really matter. Whatever’s left over, work hard to improve. Some things are within your power to change, so if you want them changed do something about it! For the things that are outside of your control, learn to let them go.
4) For you Christians, rest your joy on Christ. He is your salvation! If you have been saved, what could possibly drag you down? Listen to what John Piper says: “Nothing makes God more supreme and more central in worship than when a people are utterly persuaded that nothing – not money or prestige or leisure or family or job or health or sports or toys or friends – nothing is going to bring satisfaction to their sinful, guilty, aching hearts besides God.”
Of course, much, much more could be written about that process. This is just a (largely uninformed) map down that road. Let’s also not forget that, although it is an excellent preparation for marriage, contentment is important to pursue for its own sake, not as a means to an end. (Unless that end is, as my friend Joel says, the glorification of Christ and the furthering of your own sanctification. Thanks for the notes, Joel!) Be delighted in God, not expecting greater blessings that what you’ve already received. Should further blessings come, you’ll already know just how to handle them.