by Joanie Butman
Played hooky last week while I was off learning how to live. That quote adorns the refrigerator at our beach cottage because it is the attitude I’d like any visitor to embrace. My only criticism is that there is no such thing as a useless afternoon. Choosing to relax is as integral to a balanced, healthy life as choosing any fitness or nutritional regiment – and much more fun. That’s what summer is all about. I just spent five glorious days surrounded by family, playing on the beach, eating lobster and blueberry pie, chatting on the porch, drinking wine, and playing games. My six-year-old nephew astutely commented as we floated around in the ocean on water pillows (more commonly known as tubes), “This is the life.” The next day found us in the exact same position so he followed up with, “This is paradise. I could do this all day.” So we did. During a heat wave, the ocean is the only place to be – even with its bone-chilling temperatures.
My son, Doug, was using the same five days to work on his college essay. I wasn’t hearing “This is the life” from him. In fact, I’m pretty confident that wasn’t what he was mumbling to me any time I asked how it was going. The common application questions had been released a couple of weeks before, and he‘d been struggling with a topic. It is an excellent exercise for anyone because it is an opportunity for reflection and in my son’s case, digging deep to transform a Saltine into a Dorito (at least on paper). Not an easy feat. Yes, we all have something to offer but trying to convey the essence of oneself in 650 words or less is another thing altogether. Try it.
Doug’s most valuable asset doesn’t necessarily translate well into print, and it won't be reflected in any test scores. He and my husband are the happiest, most content people I know, but those attributes aren’t easily described or understood. John Lennon once said, “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Well said. I wonder if he even went to college.
Most of the prompts offered seemed too touchy, feely for a teenage boy unaccustomed to discussing anything more profound than sports and food. But one of them screamed his name – at least to me. “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.” Bingo! I thought it would be an excellent subject given his easygoing nature. After much angst and laborious efforts on his part, he shared that ‘contentment isn’t a place, it’s in my head. It’s being happy with who you are not where you are.’ And that is his reality. He came out of the womb like that. I wish I could bottle whatever he has, because a lot of people in this world could use a healthy dose of it – myself included. Even so, in print it’s easy to misinterpret contentment as complacency, but it is anything but.
Doug’s quandary was “How do I describe an attitude?” You can’t. People who are naturally content don’t tend to work at it or even consider it for that matter. I know I’m not supposed to covet, but surely this has to be an exception. Who wouldn’t want to be perfectly content? Content people simply don’t overthink things. Maybe that’s their secret. They just have a natural inclination to recognize good in any situation. Being discontent doesn’t even occur to them unless, of course, you are a teenage boy being forced to write an essay over Fourth of July weekend. Under ordinary circumstances, it is difficult for them to write about being content because they’ve never experienced discontent. Here’s an example.
I was visiting a friend in the hospital this week. He, too, shares the gift of contentment. He is in his late eighties and in failing health. He was my children’s soccer coach for years. Despite his many illnesses, he is one of the happiest people I know. He always has been. During our visit he regaled me with stories of his life and all the kindnesses people shared with him. Then he told me about the nurses he’s met in the hospital and rehab facility and how badly a couple of them needed his prayers. He said, “It’s lucky I’m here or else they wouldn’t have anyone to pray for them.” If you looked at his situation, lucky would not be the word that comes to mind. He went on to tell me that his ailments also gave him the opportunity to tutor the newly-appointed, young chaplain at the hospital on how to minister to the elderly. “TALK LOUD AND CLEAR. If they can’t hear you, you can’t help them. And for goodness sake, throw in a few jokes!”
We aren’t all fortunate to be born with a natural tendency towards contentment like my son or Mr. C. Humans seem to find complaining so much more tempting. Some even elevate it to a sport. And it’s contagious – in a bad way, like a disease. Have you ever noticed that when you are surrounded by complainers, it is hard to resist joining in? It becomes a competition – known in some circles as “The Crying Game.” A who-can-top-this reality show. Negativity breeds negativity. It is a virus of the soul with only one cure.
You see, the opposite is also true. If you have a positive attitude, people tend to respond in kind. We choose what kind of energy we want to project into the world. As Chuck Swindoll notes, “The remarkable thing is, we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day." Or even that minute because that is as far as my concentration goes. But if you take care of the minutes, the hours (and days) will take care of themselves.
Trust me, I do my own share of kvetching, and I certainly felt convicted after my afternoon with Mr. C. I have three exercises I’ve chosen to adopt (to varying degrees of success) in an effort to combat my natural tendency towards complaining.
1. Choose to avoid chronic complainers; or if that is impossible, keep exposure to limited doses.
2. Choose to change the complaint into a prayer of gratitude.
It is easier than you think. A simple example:
I dislike being in the car all summer driving back and forth every few days between Connecticut and Massachusetts to accommodate everyone's schedules. I hear myself expressing this aversion way too often. What a brat, right? Here’s my solution. Change the complaint to:
a. Thank you that I am blessed to have two beautiful homes to share with family and friends.
b. Thank you for the four-hour ride to enjoy long, uninterrupted conversations with you.
c. Thank you for a generous, loving husband who is willing to do this much more often than me without complaint in order to provide his family a lifetime of wonderful summers at the beach while he is working.
3. Choose to control your thoughts as they creep in.
I made a scripture card with the following verse on it, “Finally brothers and sisters, 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:8)” Yes, I put it on a picture of a place that I enjoy but the peace I feel there remains with me wherever I go.
I keep that scripture card everywhere (especially in the car) so when I am tempted to veer into the “this stinks” lane while sitting in traffic, I can choose to readjust my attitude. I'd be happy to send you one if you want because I didn't just make one. I made hundreds. It works (not always but often enough) because it is longer than my usual ten-word word maximum for memory verses. I’ve never been able to recite it without my cheat sheet, and you can’t have negative thoughts while you are concentrating on positive ones. There are times it has to be recited many, many times but eventually, the negative thoughts begin to dissipate.
Sure, it’s effortless to be content floating around the ocean without anything more pressing on my mind other than figuring out my next meal or what time my nephew’s magic show begins. The secret to a happy life is learning how to hold onto that contentment amidst the ups and downs of life. Everyone has to develop their own methods for achieving this state of being, but faith is at the center of mine whether I am practicing yoga, sitting by Mr. C's hospital bed or sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Even if most of us haven’t been blessed with the contentment gene, we can choose to develop it.
I will close with the words from probably the best example of someone who wasn’t born with contentment but spent a lifetime achieving it. “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. (Phil 4:11-13)”
I hope that someday, I will be worthy of using his words as my epitaph. He’s my hero; his name is Paul.