Contentment and gratitude for where we are in life can sometimes seem impossible to achieve. Our society bombards us with images of “perfect” lives and “perfect” bodies, all sending the same message: You’re not good enough.
Brene Brown, a sociology research professor, describes this cultural phenomenon as “scarcity,” best understood with the phrase: “Never _____ enough.” She writes in her book Daring Greatly:
It only takes a few seconds before people fill in the blanks with their own tapes.
Never good enough
Never perfect enough
Never thin enough
Never powerful enough
Never successful enough
Never smart enough
Never certain enough
Never safe enough
Never extraordinary enough
This damaging mentality is pervasive in our culture, thanks to advertising and media, including social media, which presents the “highlight reel” of even our friends’ lives. It’s hard not to compare ourselves and start to feel “less than.”
But there’s a way to quietly rebel against this attitude, and find gratitude and contentment even in the face of enormous pressure to always want more. Best of all, we can employ this secret no matter what’s going in our lives; it’s equally useful at any stage in life or income level. The gift of gratitude is free for us all.
An unforgettable example of just exactly how to change our mindset from scarcity to contentment comes in the writings of Wendell Berry, famous writer and Kentucky farmer. His book The Hidden Woundoffers “a healing and conciliatory direction of resistance to a culture in which our enjoyment of life is taken from us by the not-enoughness at the hollow heart of consumerism, only to be sold back to us at the price of the latest product, and sold in discriminating proportion along lines of stark income inequality.”
Berry describes his childhood friendship with his family’s hired man, Nick, who, despite his poverty and simple way of life, found endless opportunities to enjoy life and give thanks for its small joys. Berry writes (emphasis added):
There were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And … Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined.
Using our minds for pleasure. What a novel idea this may seem. But if we stop to consider it, to Berry’s list of Nick’s small pleasures we can add many more: Delight in using the strength of our bodies to work and play. Delight in the entertaining antics of our small children or pets. Delight in warm transportation on a cold day. Delight in enjoying food we have cooked, or sinking at night into a bed we have made. No doubt you can think of countless more.
If you think about it, taking the time to appreciate and thank God for life’s little joys is something we are called to do as Catholics. Remember the words of the Eucharistic Prayer: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks. “
Always and everywhere to give God thanks. What would it look like if we really did that? Our whole mindset would change.
Keeping up with the Joneses will never make us happy. There’s always someone out there who has more than we do. But focusing instead on gratitude for what we have shifts our thinking to contentment instead of scarcity.
When I need a boost in gratitude, I find it helpful to step back and consider my life from the perspective of history: Most of us reading this are swimming in comforts and conveniences that the overwhelming majority of people throughout history could not have dreamed of. Or as one tongue-in-cheek finance writer puts it, “Your current middle-class life is an Exploding Volcano of Wastefulness.”
The beginning of personal peace, not to mention financial freedom and stability, is delight in and gratitude for the infinite small pleasures of daily life. They are free to all of us, if only we have eyes to see them.
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