Wretched Contentment

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Wretched contentment is a state of happiness that is akin to a calm-looking lake that hides dangerous, swirling, even chaotic undercurrents, hidden below the surface, sometimes, so deeply below the surface that they may never make their presence known at the surface level. Wretched contentment is often a side effect of The Collusion of Mediocrity – where we collude with ourselves and others to avoid the challenge that sometimes comes with real honest about ourselves and our situation in the world – the result is mediocrity, something less than our potential.

One can feel very happy indeed in a state of wretched contentment, often for many years. A satisfying job, friends, more than enough money, a varied social life, a good relationship – all of these things can form part of being wretchedly content. One can be liked, popular, engaging in creative activity, healthy, and even feeling at ease with life, and still be wretchedly content. So what is so wretched about such a life?

Firstly, the wretchedness is only really defined by the life-liver, and not anyone else, unless the life-liver seeks feedback and input from a trusted and reliable source. The wretchedness lies, often, deeply below the surface of daily life. It is linked to that sense we have of the longer-run aspect of our life. Not everyone feels a threat of long-term continuity in their life, hinting at a life task, a purpose, a vocation, a calling, or even a destiny. But for those that do, this longer-term feeling of deeper meaningfulness, at certain times in life, calls to be heard, to be respected, and even realised, What was I born to do? What does my “gut” tell me I (to quote the Spice Girls) really, really, really, really, really, really want?

It doesn’t matter what one is doing in life, how contented one feels in life; if, when digging deeper one feels a sense of NOT realising one’s unique purpose, then the contentedness has wretched qualities. Wretched contentment is all about trading surface happiness and satisfaction in the short-term, for a longer term sense of life purpose and fulfilment. Over time, the renewal of short-term happiness each moment, each day begins to be felt as a strung-together chain of repetition; we enjoy each day, but the marginal satisfaction may lessen over time as we see our contentment as somewhat “empty” or even superficial. As life progresses, the taste of things becomes diluted.

Fulfilment is elusive, even as we have a ticked list of things we have in our lives – the house, the car, the friends, the social whirl, the partner, the cat, the dog, all the TV channels, the charities we give to, the gadgets…But what we don’t have is FILL-FULLment. We feel QUITE full in life, even very full, but there’s a sense of something missing, something missed, something perhaps avoided, or never truly encountered. There may be a sense of someone in life we were supposed to really meet and get to know and hear something essential they had to say to us. That person is, of course, ourselves.

If we feel we might be wretchedly content, this is often the real “me” trying to warn us that life is passing us by. Even as we are relatively happy, the inner “me” tries to make me despair! Like a demon (or an angel?) on our shoulder, it whispers: “Take a deep sigh, friend, for this happiness you have is only skin deep, and you’ve developed such a thick skin, you can’t feel your real nerves any more.

Realising we are wretchedly content makes us feel our nerves – we feel nerv-ous. We feel dis-eased, dissatisfied. Our fellow wretchedly content friends (who we have often cleverly surrounded ourselves with -even partners, lovers) become agitated to and tell us to value what we have, to stop “analysing” and, of course, to enjoy the moment. Often the inner voice won’t go away and it suggests to us a horrifying path out of the land of wretched contentment. It tells us to leave the calmness of the surface and to dive into the dark depths, perhaps never to surface again. There may be our true heart hidden in the dead man’s chest, but mostly there is simply uncertainty and the shadowy unknown of a place unknown to ourselves – the real “I”.

The path out of wretched contentment leads into the land of wretchedness. Beyond that forbidding and sparse land’s sharp-peaked mountains lies the land of real contentment, a place where we meet who we were truly born to be.

Contentment is a feeling that exists along a number of dimensions.

Contentment can have a “high” and a “low” aspect. One can feel up or down at different times. Praise from someone can “Lift” the spirits and put one on a high. Alcohol makes some people high and some it creates a “downer”. This dimension can also change over time. In the short-term, we can get a “High” from praise, but feel “low” when we consider that the job we are in pays so little. Or, again, an alcoholic drink can give us a short-term high, but make us feel depressed a few hours later. So, there is an “up” or “down” aspect.

There is also a “full” or “empty” dimension. We can feel contented because we have “enough” money in the bank, or the person we love and who loves us back, makes us feel satisfied. We can feel “full” and “satisfied” after a meal. But we can also feel “full” after a meal but not satisfied – tired and sluggish. Or we can have a full 8 hours sleep but wake up feeling tired, as if the sleep didn’t refill our energy tank! We can also fill our day watching all of our favourite TV shows but feel empty, that the day was a waste. The voice of wretched contentment often speaks out here. If we have a day watching every episode of a favourite TV series, once in a while, it can be a genuinely satisfying thing. If we are doing it day after day, even if we enjoy each programme, we often have a sense of the time being “empty” and “wasted.”

For many (though not all) people, there is also a dimension of meaning or purpose. We can give money to charity once a week, and still not feel we are “doing much” for the world. We can be in a job that provides products or services, and not feel we are “useful” to the world. We can be successful on a career ladder, but not feel we are “making a difference. For many people, the idea that their life, no matter how personally successful or materially satisfying, leaves no social or purposeful footprint in the sands of history, is a discouraging thing.

So we can feel high or low, we can feel full or empty, and we can feel a sense of purpose or meaninglessness. In a state of wretched contentment, the “purpose” has been set outside of ourselves, no matter how much we think we have set it. We aren’t really free. We are simply riding on someone else’s cart in life, and we are paying for the privilege – the deal is that we don’t have to drive, we can move around the cart as freely as we like, so long as we don’t ever jump off. We can be comfortable on the cart, but it isn’t our cart. The cart is big enough for us to move around quite a lot. But it is still someone else’s journey.

When we are truly wretchedly content, we forget that the cart exists, that there IS a journey, we forget that perhaps we were supposed to decide or influence the destination, we forget because the cart is so comfortable that we don’t even feel we are travelling. We start to believe that the cart is the world, which isn’t moving anywhere and that the only movement is the movement we make on it. So, where was our cart supposed to be heading. If I tell you, then it isn’t your cart, nor your journey. If I tell you where your cart is supposed to be heading (and perhaps charge you £100 per hour to tell you) then it is MY cart you’ll be on, and not yours. I do not know where your cart is supposed to be heading. It might travel alongside mine. We might join up for a while or offer each other signposts and ideas of where to head, but it will be YOUR journey, and, because your journey would be unique, utterly unique, it would change the map we are all making – for no one would have traveled exactly where your unique journey takes you. There is only repetition when we follow someone else’s journey to the neglect of our own. So, here’s the deal: follow someone else’s path for the whole of your life, or, better, jump on their cart – you can feel safe and secure that you are neither navigating nor driving. You can move freely around the cart while you travel – but you’ll have to give up travelling your own path, driving your own cart. And, as you travel, some part of you that was born for a unique journey may call your name, nudge you and try to remind you that your own journey is what you were born for.

We’re born with a fear of the unknown, and also with a natural curiosity. But when the fear is greater than the curiosity, we seek certainty. So we leap on the enticing carts and wagons of others. We lose the fear find the certainty, and feel safe, secure and contented for it. But the contentment is wretched, for we were not born for it.

Take our “How wretchedly content are you” test here.

 


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One thought on “Wretched Contentment

  1. Great article – which prompts some immediate thoughts. One is a book I enjoyed reading last year – called The Art of Loving by a 1950s psychoanalyst called Erick Fromm. He says how industrialisation and corporatisation has made us feel alienated and disconnected from ourselves and each other. That’s because we’re expected to be good-natured, comfortable cogs in a big machine.

    Another thought is that the clarity and strength you need to break out of such a mould needs to come from somewhere. Since most people are nowadays stuck in fight-or-flight mode, ie there’s an underlying mental agitation, we cannot see things clearly enough often to do much about them. I suppose taking one step at a time works.

    Which brings me to another book – The War of Art – which is all about overcoming resistance. Resistance being the ego, the voice in our heads that stops us from doing something truly worthwhile – whether that being writing a novel, following our vocation or getting a six-pack. Resistance’s other name is fear. The only way through it is to work at the thing we want, a certain amount every day, like a true pro, and ignore the resistance.

    And finally… to get some insights you need to work on your health and robustness. Pratices that calm the breathing and the mind – yoga, meditation (particularly loving kindness), tai chi, martial arts – all these promote inner strength and clarity. I’ve personally been doing a breathing practice called Buteyko for my health. And I’m finding it’s transforming my life day by day in small doses.

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