I’m a simple guy. I have constructed my life so that my choices will be limited. Wether it’s having a simple shoe collection, being content eating the same thing every day, or learning the practice of sitting in my living room with the TV off. The simpler my life is, the happier I am. I have done this on purpose, but not intentionally. My propensity for simplicity and contentment grows out of my natural bent. I’m not going against the grain of my personality; I’m just fortunate enough to have one facet of my spiritual life that doesn’t feel entirely impossible.
I have known for some time now that my way of looking at life is at odds with how many people look at life. I’ve learned that there are some practices I’ve embraced accidentally that have served me well. And as I see how these accidental practices serve me well, I know that if I could have chosen them purposefully, I would have done so.
Some have seen this bent toward simplicity in my life and have accused me of having low standards, or settling too easily. However, I believe what I’ve done is quite different than settling. As I’ve reflected on the things that I care about and the things that I don’t, I’ve learned that I have accidentally developed a real comfort with what I have and a very peace-giving resignation to what I don’t have. I’m actually very content, which helps me to feel very happy.
As it is with every other thing related to my spiritual being, the things I’m doing well at are all by accident. I didn’t set out to try and be content. I am just fortunate in that I have stumbled into this. Just like some people are naturally pre-disposed to not become easily angered. That one is very much not me. I’m really good at getting angry!
I have a really comfortable life. I’ve got a nice house, nice things. I want for nothing. It’s pretty easy to be content. But I don’t have to look far to see all the things I could have. We’re all surrounded by the invitation to indulge ourselves in the gadgets, the toys, the opportunities, and the luxuries of American life. What is it about all the shiny things that make it so difficult for so many of us to be content?
My flippantly short answer is that most of us have settled for filling our lives with shiny things and have never bothered with learning the value of the rich things.
The things you can buy on Amazon are not the things that add meaning. They might be cool or unique or versatile. They might meet a felt need. But they all come with a 100% that their ability to add value to your life has an extremely limited shelf-life.
We have grossly mis-appropriated our resources to fill our lives with things that will break or fall out of style. Too many times the cost of this misappropriation has not been the dollar value of the item, but the relational cost incurred by our obsession with having stuff. You probably don’t like my suggestion that there could be a hint of “stuff-obsession” in your life. It’s probably more accurate to say that we’re a stuff-distracted people.
Partially the impulse toward “new” things is because it’s easier to get new stuff than grow personal emotional processes that lead to contentment and happiness. Contentment comes through drilling down into the less comfortable in life. It comes from increases to our understanding the larger human condition. Contentment happens when you practice living with less things that you want and more thins you need. It’s really not all that fun.
The other part of the impulse to buy things is because there’s something about buying a thing that makes us feel good. Maybe my wife’s mad at me, or maybe I have no idea what to do with my kids, or maybe I feel like I’m drifting aimlessly through life, but I just ordered something cool on Amazon and it’ll be here in 2 days.
The real issue is not how much we buy. Buying stuff only has an emotional, even spiritual, impact when it occurs out of a vacuum emotional and relational security. When the stuff we collect interrupts relational space, or when the stuff we get fills in emotional longing, these are the times when “stuff” erodes our ability to be content with the life we have.
I refer to this as “settling” specifically because the accumulation of things is far easier than the building of a contented life. Culturally, we are well conditioned to understand the accumulation of cool things to be the total opposite of settling. I think our culture could be mistaken.
Many will buy, not because of need, but because of the impulse to diminish the presence of that which is unresolved in life. Many of us have settled for shiny things at the expense of the things that will actually make our lives rich.
Again, I do about 1,000 things a day that impede my ability to embrace a truly rich life, so I’m not throwing stones. I guess the real questions for all of us are, how long are we going to be willing to pay the price of lives that are really unfulfilled? How long will we settle for pretty lives that are light on joy? What would it take to motivate any of us to stop settling for that which comes easy and learn that practice of being content?