As my Bible study finishes our current study (Lysa Terkeurst’s Finding I Am), and we begin to search for the next soul filling, life altering, eye opening study, what we have found is as follows:
“Is your life too busy? Are you having difficulties finding margin in your life to even do your laundry? Join Sarah as we journey through the Bible and learn how to create space in your life”.
“Do you feel like God just never listens? That you keep praying and praying and praying, yet nothing ever seems to go your way? This is probably because you aren’t reading God’s signs properly. Join Christina as we journey through the Book of John and learn how to listen to God more clearly”.
“Does your life feel boring, dull, mundane, purposeless? I found myself here too. One day, I was strolling through Target and realized I went there just because I needed something to do. Join Emily as we learn how to live a fulfilling, Christ-centered life and live up to your true purpose!”
…these all sound like really great studies, but what we’ve discovered is that in each of these studies, we must identify a deficit–we must admit “there’s a problem in my life”, “I need fixing'”, and the study promises to spend the next 6-8 weeks, “fixing” that problem.
We actually did a study on rejection a few seasons ago. When we first began the study, we all said, “I’ve been rejected once or twice, but that was really it”, and as we delved in, the study brought up more and more definitions and scenarios of rejection and, of course, that made us all think of other scenarios in which we hadn’t initially was rejection, but according to the study, was actually rejection, and we began freaking out that maybe our lives were more tragic than we thought–because the Bible study told us so.
Of course, this type of “fixing” mentality is not unique to just the Bible study community. The best seller lists also includes a slew of titles dedicated to “self improvement”: ‘You Are a Bad Ass”, “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, “Mind Hacking”, etc. The culture we live in tells us we are not enough, we are not doing enough, we are not good enough, and therefore, we must constantly be “fixing” ourselves to be “better” (and if we read one of these books, then ultimately happiness will be bestowed upon us, because we have FIXED whatever was initially broken).
They say, in order to be happy, we should, “get 20 minutes of sunshine per day”. They say, in order to be happy, we should, “exercise 60 minutes a day”. They say, in order to be happy, we should, “practice gratitude at least 10 minutes a day”. They say, in order to be happy, we should, “give back to others and volunteer”. They say, “Oh, you aren’t happy? Try reading this book! Try doing this Bible study! Try watching this TedTalk! It’s all about how to find happiness.” But ultimately, what all of this is suggesting is that we are not happy because we are experiencing a current deficit, and in order to be happy, we must fill that deficit.
As a Millennial, I grew up in this generation where we were always told to “reach for the stars” and “you can do whatever you want to” and “pick your colleges based on your preferences” and “the sky is the limit” and “pick your occupations based on your interests”, and in some ways, I think we have failed the Millennial into thinking that if it’s not FUN, and if its not making them HAPPY, then they shouldn’t do it, and I should immediately look for a change to FIX my unhappiness. Because, unhappiness must mean there is something wrong with me, and I need to find a way to fill that void IMMEDIATELY, otherwise I am not living my life to the fullest, I’m wasting time, because I should always be happy and always be enjoying life and everything should always be delightful.
But, perhaps “happiness” is not what we should be striving for, but rather contentment. When I think about the times in my life when I was MOST happy, it was often after some kind of tragic event, some kind of strife or struggle, some kind of barrier that I had overcome. In the featured image, I was really HAPPY because I just completed the longest trail run of my life and was ELATED to be so close to my warm car. I was really HAPPY when I turned in my master’s portfolio, because that meant all those sleepless nights of dreaming about the sign-signifier relationship in “In Cold Blood” would now be over. I was really HAPPY when I met Mike, because that meant all that emotional turmoil and constant identity crisis state of being single was now over. I was really HAPPY when my first year of teaching was over, because that meant (a) no kid killed me and (b) most importantly, I didn’t kill any kid. But none of these situations came on their own–in order to experience HAPPINESS, I had to endure some kind of suffering. Because, as our Bible studies and self improvement books and Brene Brown TedTalks and motivational quotes tell us, that only way to FIND true happiness is to constantly be thinking up deficits and holes and problems in our lives so we can fill them.
I don’t know about you, but it’s really exhausting to always be in a state of stress, anxiety, emotional turmoil, to always be chasing problems and bad habits and destructive thought patterns, to be constantly analyzing my relationships for distrust and dysfunction and past wounds that creep up just so that I can experience a little moment of happiness (before I’m supposed to fall back into my state of self despair to fix yet another problem about myself). So perhaps instead of seeking happiness, we should rather be seeking contentment.
Now, before we move on, let’s take a moment to point out there is a difference between happiness, being unhappy, depression, and contentment. Happiness is that state of elation–you pop out of bed with a smile on your face, you feel like dancing and singing and skipping everywhere you go, you feel it necessary to give away all of your life’s savings and possessions to the starving kids in Africa because you are HAPPY and nothing else matters. Being unhappy, on the other hand, means not being satisfied–you aren’t necessarily sad nor angry nor frustrated or disappointed, but you just feel a lacking (like, when you order a PSL at Starbucks on a snowy day and it comes lukewarm–that is being unsatisfied, thus unhappy); you don’t feel like tapping your toes to the beat, but your life is still feels complete. And depression is a diagnosable condition that, often times, no amount of sunshine, exercise, self-help books will resolve, because the deficit might be a chemical imbalance (that is not what we are discussing here). And contentment means feeling satisfied, pleasure, purpose in whatever current life state you exist in.
I think contentment requires the acceptance of two ideas: that my life is enough, and that life incurs suffering.
These self-help books tell us how to “make more money”, “be more successful”, “have more friends”, “live more of a purpose”, “be a better leader”, which ultimately tell me that in my current state, I don’t have enough money, I’m not successful enough, I need more friends, my life has no purpose, and I’m a poor leader. But, when I accept that my life IS enough–I have enough, I do enough, I am enough–I no longer need to earn more, seek more, do more, be more. The money I make IS enough to pay my bills, send me on a few vacations, feed me nutritious food. The things I’ve accomplished thus far IS enough–earning my driver’s license, graduating high school, college, scoring a home run in kickball, hanging in yoga handstand for three seconds IS enough. I HAVE enough friends, I’ve DONE enough things, I’ve BEEN to enough places–my life is enough, and anything I do hereafter is an added bonus–and that leads me to contentment because I don’t feel like I have a deficit to fill.
And, contentment occurs when I accept that life is suffering. I will suffer. People do suffer. Being human means suffering. Things happen to people: disease, injury, car accidents; divorce, job loss, angry patrons; floods, flight delays, hunger. I think, so often, we do so many things to avoid SUFFERING (go to the gym, listen to uplifting music, hang out with inspirational people, clear the clutter, take showers, eat nutritional meals, unfollow mean people on social media, go to counseling, etc.–which are all great tactics) that when something does happen and we do suffer, we become surprised, and then we become upset that I put SO much work into avoiding this miserable state, and yet it happened anyway. But, suffering is inevitable. Maybe I’m not “suffering” in this current state, but I can expect to suffer again someday, and that’s OK–because that is what being human is about. I can still live in a state of contentment while suffering because I’ve accepted that certainty that it will happen, and when I accept it WILL happen, I am less surprised, less disappointed, more willing to deem it part of my human experience, and better able to slip back into my state of contentment.
Contentment will never happen if we are always seeking happiness, self-improvement, and fixing. As Mark Manson famously quotes, “It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place”. Although perhaps not culturally acceptable, maybe it is OK for us to tell ourselves that, in our current state of life, we are just fine.