Thursday, February 14, 2008

Holy Content

When the inevitability of my divorce had only been confirmed for about a month, I went to a friend's wedding. At a moment when a group of women I knew from my church were crowded around her asking to see her ring and making that joyful conversation that makes brides feel so special and that makes wives remember their youth, I stumbled in and stuck my hand out saying, "Look, I have a new ring, too." I showed them the silver geometric ring with a blue stone that I had bought so that the indentation on my left-hand ring finger did not remind me all the time that it was naked.

I can't tell you when I became ashamed of myself for stealing that moment from my friend. I don't know if it was immediate or if I realized it later. I was in such a fog of grief that I couldn't control my behevior nor could I reflect on it very well.

When I told this story to my mother eventually, she said in a tone that communicated sadness, compassion, experience and wisdom: "You'll never be able to take those moments back."

I didn't ask her to tell her own stories. I walked away from that conversation and held onto the words. It was enough to know that someone else knew the mortification I felt and believed me that it was big enough to ache for a lifetime.

Tonight at my book group that is discussing Eat, Pray, Love, we talked about the search for contentment, which the author says is the goal of yogic practice. Tim didn't like this; pointed out that Jesus would not have said this. I agree with him, if we define "content" as almost synonymous with happy. But I talked a little bit about The Spirituality of Imperfection and its advice that we must learn to live in the moment of our emotions. Beating ourselves up for feeling sad when we have so many nice things or for feeling jealous when we don't really want him anyway doesn't make us stop feeling that way. It simply adds another layer of emotion on top, which increases our chances of satisfying our own needs before the needs of others since they seem so voluminous. By being content with our emotional responses, we acknowledge them and they lose control. We can not think about them without thinking, "I'm not thinking about that," which is otherwise entirely futile as anyone can attest who has raced to get to their destination when they had to pee.

Also, when we are content with the chemical/animal responses we have to stimuli, we are experiencing the life God intended for us, instead of trying to experience the life we think we should have. As the rabbi of Porissover said, "When God sends bitterness, we should feel it."

Interestingly, when I got home I found that Baraka had posted on this same topic.
Deepening the obsession with Iceland is Eric Weiner. After spending a year traveling to nine countries in search of the good life (including Bhutan, Thailand, and Qatar), Eric Weiner, the author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World has this to say about Iceland:

If you had to choose one of those happiest places to live in that you visited, which would you choose, and why?

I’m tempted to say Bhutan, but I’m going to go with Iceland, actually. It’s just a remarkably cozy, creative, crazy place. And it’s a place that embraces failure — you can just do whatever you want, and if you fail, they might like you all the more because of it.

The capital, Reykjavik, is just sort of the perfect-sized city of about 120,000 people, so you can get anywhere you need to go by walking for 15 minutes. And they are happy, but they are also in touch with their sadness. One local musician told me: “I’m happy, but I cherish my melancholia,” which struck me as kind of profound, this notion that you can be happy, and yet, especially if you are an artist or a creative type, have this part of you that’s melancholy at the same time.


Living in Prozac Nation, that is pretty profound. The search for continuous happiness, for a life wholly without reflection, melancholy, or pain strikes me as unrealistic and, well, sad.

A French friend of mine pointed out that melancholy has a negative connotation here in the US, whereas in France “mélancolie” is considered a necessary and natural cycle of reflectiveness between life’s ups and downs, essential to experiencing it fully.

Plus, I rather like the longing in my heart for a permanence which is impossible in this life and only possible in the next. I wouldn’t want any pill to blot that yearning out.
I am trying to be content with one of those moments that you can't take back right now.

On my way home, driving on the expressway, I was so caught up in my thoughts that although I registered that a mother was walking through the snow on the shoulder away from her hazrd-light-blinking car, getting her three-year-old daughter through by holding her up by one arm, I did not think to help them until I had passed the exit they were headed toward. On this cold night, surely they would have accepted a ride to the gas station and possibly one back to their car. I said, "I'm sorry, God," when I realized my lack of servant opportunism, which is a posture commanded by Christ. Although I took the next exit and backtracked, I was unable to help them.

Just as you can't take gaffes back, neither can you go back and pick up missed opportunities. You just have a loose end hanging off you that can't be tucked in. I am trying to be content with this fact and learn from it.

3 comments:

Baraka said...

Warm greetings of peace dear PM,

I agree with him, if we define "content" as almost synonymous with happy.

I agree, contentment and happiness are very different ideas - though many people define them synonymously these days. To me happiness is episodic and fleeting, while contentment can infuse one's daily life.

It goes back to the spiritual idea expressed in the Christian Lord's Prayer: trying to truly accept God's will in our lives.

The crux being that we need wisdom and discernment, as in the serenity prayer:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

If the things we cannot change include life/other people and the things we can change include ourselves and our behavior, then we are freed to implement both increased benevolence toward others, as well as beneficial action and contentment in our lives.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, has a simple, beautiful prayer which I often say, "My Lord, grant me health, contentment, and good character."

If we are open to even the negative things that happen in our lives as a form of perfecting our actions and character then I think we can achieve perspective and contentment in life.

Thanks for your post!

Warmly,
Baraka

breadwild said...

Rebecca, you are so right about lost moments. Reminds me of one of my favorite passages from George Eliot in her debut novel, Scenes from Clerical Life. It is a brilliant reminder of the importance of savoring those moments with the people we love. And I quote:
"The burial was over, and Amos turned with his children to re-enter the house - the house where, an hour ago, Milly's dear body lay, where the windows were half darkened, and sorrow seemed to have a hallowed precinct for itself, shut out from the world. But now she was gone; the broad snow-reflected daylight was in all the rooms; the Vicarage again seemed part of the common working-day world, and Amos, for the first time, felt that he was alone - that day after day, month after month, year after year, would have to be lived through without Milly's love. Spring would come, and she would not be there; summer, and she would not be there; and he would never have her again with him by the fireside in the long evenings. The seasons all seemed irksome to his thoughts; and how dreary the sunshiny days that would be sure to come! She was gone from him; and he could never show her his love any more, never make up for omissions in the past by filling future days with tenderness.
O the anguish of that thought that we can never atone to ourdead for the stinted affection we gave them, for the light answers we returned to their plaints or their pleadings, for the little reverence we showed to that sacred human soul that lived so close to us, and was the divinest thing God had given us to know !"

PrincessMax said...

Thank you Baraka and Breadwild for your willingness to commit some time to respond so well to my post.

Baraka, using the definition of the things we cannot change as other people to increase our benevolence toward them is an interpretation I now love.

Breadwild, what a lovely passage. I haven't read any George Eliot. I think that's a mistake. ". . . the light answers we returned to their plaints or their pleadings. . ." Gorgeous and heartbreaking.