There are some things in life that seem to constantly elude us. They may not elude all of us all of the time but they certainly can have a slippery aspect to them and make each hard to grab at different points in our lives. Things like: Love, money, patience, employment, friends, good hair days, “luck” (if you believe in that), good looks, fresh breath, trust, time, health, children, sleep, approval, etc.
We all know at least one person who is missing one (or more) of these treasured items. In fact, if we are honest, we may be missing a few of these ourselves. As hard as we try, we are still impatient. As much as we search, we can’t find love. No matter how many jobs we get – we can’t make enough money. Make up or make-overs can’t ultimately change our looks. Some people have bad breath and swallowing a gallon of Listerine can’t change it. Past betrayal may make future trust seem impossible. Why is it so hard to lose that final 10 lbs or get rid of that chronic ache? It can get frustrating when the one thing (or the six things) you want just never end up in your grasp.
We are born discontented. We come out of the womb crying and unhappy. To the infant, there is no difference between “want” and “need.” They want milk because they need milk. They want to be held because they need to be held. Want and need feels the same to a baby. As we mature, we understand the difference between “want” and “need”. Intellectually, we know that we NEED food but we WANT an iPad. However, though we understand this difference intellectually, we do not necessarily articulate this difference verbally. Our words betray our misunderstanding when we find ourselves saying things like, “I NEED an iPad.” Granted, we don’t really NEED an iPad but the fact that we say that we do blurs the line and creates the feeling of discontent. We create the same confusion when we say things like, “I’m starving.“ Yes, we need food to survive but that sentence is never said out of need, but want. Most Americans don’t know what it means to actually starve. Hunger pains are not the same as starvation. No one ever died from missing one meal. We allow our “wants” to fool us into thinking they are actually “needs” and when we do not receive the perceived want, we become discontented and the chase is on.
As adults, it doesn’t seem to matter what we put in our mouths – our appetite continues. We are constantly chasing something. A rich man has money but maybe lacks a relationship with his children. A poor man can obtain love but not pay his electric bill. A woman can have beauty but still lack security while an elderly man can have wisdom but lack health. One couple wants one baby while another couple wants two more. We all want more time. Our pockets feel perpetually empty even when they are filled. It seems that there is always something else we want. There is always something out there that we think will make our life more complete. If I could just have ____________ (fill in the blank), THEN I would be truly happy. Truly satisfied. Isn’t that how we feel most of the time? Isn’t that why marketing companies and TV commercials and radio advertisements are so effective? Every company recognizes that you are missing SOMETHING and their product or service will help you get it.
Methods change but human nature does not. Our wants and needs in the past are still our wants and needs today. What Adam searched for outside the Garden, we still search for with our Garmin. Eve’s longings yesterday are still Eve’s longings today. Today, most people tie their happiness to their circumstances. If life is going the way they want, they are happy. If they are missing or lacking something, they are sad, depressed or consumed by what they are missing. If happiness, joy and peace are only obtained by getting what we want, no wonder everyone seems to be depressed all the time.
I have had the privilege of traveling to several third world countries. I have been to the jungles of Ecuador. I have walked the poorest streets of the Dominican Republic. I have seen the “garbage dump communities” in Guatemala City. Even in America, I have spent time in several “ghettos” in some of our major cities. Once I even spent the night in a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. I have been with the poorest of the poor and have witnessed abject poverty first hand.
Years ago I used to sponsor a child through an organization called Compassion International. For $25 dollars a month, my donation would help a child from a poor village receive an education, give his family money for better clothes, better food, better opportunities. The child I sponsored was a nine-year old boy named Elvis and Elvis lived in one of the poorest communities in the Dominican Republic. For years, Elvis and I would send letters to each other (through Compassion’s translators) and talk about our families. He would tell me about what he was learning in school and how my assistance was giving him an opportunity to change his life.
Through Compassion International, I arranged a visit with Elvis in the D.R.. After years of financial support and correspondence, I was finally going to meet my sponsored child – who was now 16. I was not prepared for what I was about to see. Though my support did give him opportunities that he would not have had access to otherwise, he was still living in a poor home in a poor village. When I met his mother, she could not stop smiling. You could tell, through the language barrier, that she was struggling to find a way to thank me for my contribution. As I entered her home, she offered me a tall glass of something pink. The glass was dirty. I accepted the glass and faked a sip. (We were instructed to drink nothing unless it was offered in a sealed container.) As she gave me a tour of their tiny home, I realized I was in a hut. The floors were dirt. The walls were flimsy. If the Big Bad Wolf was outside, I was surely his next meal. The roof was made of soup cans. Literally soup cans. The cans were cut and flattened and placed like shingles on the roof. Obviously, there was no insulation. The entire 4 bedroom hut was the size of most American living rooms. There were at least six people living there. Honestly, it was difficult to be there. Everywhere I looked I saw living conditions that were deplorable. We wouldn’t let our pets stay where these people lived. As I walked through their home, it was hard not to cry. I held back tears as I saw where they slept. I held back tears as I looked at their “kitchen.”. I held back tears when I saw how happy they were – with virtually nothing. On the wall of one of the bedrooms, were two pictures. One was a framed cross-stitched image of a house. It was not something any American would hang prominently in their home. In fact, unless it was made by someone important to you, it would never be featured on any wall on any home in America. This was her prized art. It looked like something you would reject in the free pile of a yard sale and she had it hanging as a way to decorate her place. Next to it was a picture of me. ME!? I had travelled 1500 miles from my home to find a picture of me on someone’s wall. As I stared at her artwork, she took the framed cross-stitched house and offered it to me.
Are you kidding me???
I had more money in my pocket than she had in her life and she was going to give me her prized possession? No way. I couldn’t accept it. And then I realized that her kind gesture had never happened to me before. I had been in hundreds of American homes commenting on numerous items on people’s walls and no one, not one, had ever taken it off the wall to give to me. By the same token, I have never offered any of my prized possessions to anyone either. She had little and offered what she had freely. By contrast, I have everything and refuse to part with any of it. It was at that point, I realized just how poor I really was. The one to be pitied was not her, but me.
The experience reminded me of an ancient letter I had read just a few days before my trip. The letter, by the Apostle Paul, was written about 62 A.D. from a prison cell, most likely in Rome. Prisons in Rome were not the humane housing they are today. This cell would have been cold, dark, damp and dirty. It was also subterranean, approximately twelve feet underground. Prisoners, their guards, and their provisions were lowered through an opening the size of a manhole. Iron shackles were fixed to the walls. The only available light would be from a torch. The Roman historian, Sallust, described the Roman prison as “disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness and stench.” It was in this environment that Paul penned the following words:
- “Do everything without grumbling or arguing…” (Philippians 2:14)
- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (4:6)
- “…Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (4:8)
- “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (11-13)
What is your life lacking? What are you missing? Probably a lot less than Paul’s at that time. And yet he is encouraging others not to grumble or complain. He reminds his friends to not be anxious about anything. He challenges us all to pray. Paul could have spent his time thinking about his deplorable conditions or his current life situation. Instead, he chose to think about things that were noble, pure and lovely. And in the midst of his dire situation, he admits he is content in any and every situation – even in prison.
Have you learned Paul’s secret yet? I’m working on it. And when I start thinking about all that I don’t have and sense discontentment creeping in, I am reminded of Paul and his letters and an old Indian proverb, “I cried when I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
I’m blessed. Once again, I am content. I truly have everything I need.
Except an Ipad. Man, I need one of those badly.
“True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.” – G.K. Chesterton
“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’ - Dalai Lama