Prodigal Son: A commitment to contentment
I think most people tend to believe the far ends of the emotion-scale are despair and joy. Black and white; darkness and light.
Of the two, the human soul tends to gravitate to the darkness. Despair is the most accessible and the easiest to feed. As the worries and hardships of life envelope us and the ever-increasing weight of responsibility settles upon our unprepared shoulders, darkness shouts empathy while the light speaks in whispers.
It is our nature to view our lives like that of Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill — only to wake in the morning and find it once again at the bottom.
And so we begin again — legs aching, lungs burning — to push the rock to the pinnacle. The hillside is slippery with slime and dangerous in pitch, but we press on, hoping to get ahead of our fate, then rest in the shade of joy.
If only the stupid boulder would cooperate. If only it would stay atop the hill where we secured it. If only we could finally get ahead. There seems to be no time for joy and we begin to believe joy belongs to others.
And we forget the about our fallen world: Life is bloody, red in tooth and claw. No one is spared the doubts and fears of life. Everyone is fighting his or her own battles. In the end, no one gets out of here alive.
This truth, I believe, is hardest on Christians — because the Christian culture seems so steeped in the concept of joy. More often than not, Christians speak of their ongoing joy, but in actually, they experience it in glimpses. We wonder if, perhaps, there’s something wrong with our relationship with God — or if we might have a wrong understanding of the concept of joy.
The latter, I believe, is the answer. According to my friend, the Rev. Dr. Peter Moore, the biblical concept of joy relates to our experience of God in a direct way. It describes our delight in having God in our hearts and lives and in the hearts and lives of others. In my case, that joy manifests itself in confident hope. Even in the seasons of my life when I’ve felt overcome by despair, that confident hope has been present. Always.
But what of happiness as it applies to our more human nature? A happiness readily available to all — regardless of religion, socio-economic status or nationality?
On the Camino I believe God opened my eyes to something I think I’ll never forget and it is this: The opposite of despair is not joy. It is contentment. And to be content is to be happy.
God has made this state of happiness available to us and Jesus preached about it numerous times. But unlike joy, which happens to us, contentment is a gift we can decide to accept. In many places around the world, contentment is something that’s part of everyday life — but in the consumer-driven economy of America, many of us are blind to the availability of contentment. Consider the constant barrage of messages about things we do not have. Imagine a year of national reverse marketing, where advertisements point to what we do have:
“You have modern shelter! With a machine attached to your house that gives you hot and cold air with the push of a button! Everything runs magically on a thing called electricity! You enjoy safe hot and cold running water. Who cares how big your shelter is, or where it’s located — it’s a miracle!”
“You have a machine made of metal that explodes dinosaur guts and moves along at 70 mph on paths made of this thing called asphalt! Who cares how new it is — it’s a miracle!
“You have a tiny cube in your pocket that literally connects you to every piece of information known to man! Who cares how big or new it is — it’s a miracle!”
On the Camino, where every pilgrim becomes a middle-class sojourner, contentment is almost inevitable … because the things that cause discontent are no longer even available. A pilgrim is exempt from the old saying, “You always want what you can’t have.” Why? Because there’s nothing to want except food, water, shelter, perhaps a beer or a glass of wine and for your feet to stop hurting.
When a pilgrim walks the Camino, contentment is thrust upon him. He cannot hide from it, ignore it, or resist it. It is present because the Camino is modern life stripped bare. A pilgrim is surrounded by a cohesive tribe, where everyone lives life in the moment.
So how can one achieve contentment and happiness outside of a place like the Camino de Santiago?
Well, it isn’t easy. It’s a commitment. A lifestyle. And sadly it’s not for everyone, as some people guard and protect and revel in unhappiness. But I believe the secret is:
Identify the things and experiences you desire but will likely never receive nor achieve.
Admit to yourself you will not have them.
Remove yourself from the situations that cause envy, jealousy and discontentment to rear their ugly heads.
You already know in your heart where and when these moments of discontent occur. If they don’t come to mind immediately, carry a journal and write them down. When you do write them down, you’ll think, “Why did I even need to do that? I knew it already.”
But you must be committed and covetous of contentment. Covetous of the happiness it will bring.
So, what are the moments that cause your feelings of discontent?
Is it when you are with those friends above your financial status and you find yourself distracted by the things they have that you do not?
Is it time spent with those friends who seem to have “perfect” kids, who talk constantly about their kids’ achievements?
Is it when you return from a fancy vacation and the “happy” memories make the normal grind of your life seem worse than before the vacation?
Is it on social media, where hundreds of acquaintances post hundreds of photos of their seemingly splendid life?
Perhaps it’s politics and the heart-sickness caused by corruption on both sides?
Whatever robs you of your contentment — and thus your happiness — should be eliminated from your life.
Yes, it can be done.
No one makes you spend time around people who cause you to feel less content. No one makes you take vacations fancier than camping by a lake. No one makes you spend time on social media. No one makes you immerse yourself in the hate-filled political news industry.
These are all choices.
It’s certainly possible these ideas sound impossible to you and you’ll dismiss them out of hand. I’m not offended, because I know this about you: You’re going to get older. With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes a level of contentment. You’ll get there, whether you want to or not — and it’s my prayer you’ll achieve contentment sooner rather than later.
It was not until after my Camino pilgrimage that it occurred to me contentment is the root source of happiness. I’d like to say it was a Road to Damascus revelation during the adventure, but it wasn’t. Everything hurt and I was pretty sure I was dying. It only happened after reflection on my conversations, thoughts and a lot clarity from the Lord.
Maybe God would call it The “Camino 12,000,000-step program.” Like all gifts from God, it’s free. You don’t need to walk a single one of those steps. All you have to do is decide to join.