It takes wisdom to be content – or discontent.

Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it.

–G.K. Chesterton in Commonwealth, 1933

 

I don’t know that my comments on this ironic statement can add much, but for my own sake I will think while I type, and ramble as I think. GKC’s words startle me out of feeling guilty for complaining about modern life — after all, “We are so well off!” We have (noisy) leaf blowers so we don’t have to spend so much time raking. We can stop for fast food on our mad trips up the interstate, and while we eat off paper plates at dirty tables and lick our fingers we can be thankful we didn’t have to go to the trouble of finding a picnic spot by the river.

My first encouragement to question the amassing of things we don’t really want was 40 years ago, in the La Leche League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. The motive was to help women cultivate a peaceful home in which they would have the time to leisurely nurse their babies; that goal would require sorting out one’s priorities concerning what we now call lifestyle choices. Do you really want your tabletop cluttered with knick-knacks, the author wrote, or might you enjoy having clear surfaces that are easier to keep clean and will ultimately be, in their simplicity, more pleasing to the soul?

The whole concept of More With Less has gained ground in the last decades, but Chesterton’s words reveal how easy it is to lose, bit by bit, the most valuable and wholesome “comforts” that our poorer forebears had in abundance, and not even notice what we have given in trade. Note that intangibles such as decency and good manners are on the list, to remind us that civilization is more than physical comforts.

The book Margin by Richard Swenson comes to mind here. He writes (first in 1995) about how the  people he doctored in third-world countries were by-and-large happier than the Americans back home, and he analyzes the reasons why. Even without health care and modern technology, they enjoyed several of the things mentioned in the quote, in good measure.

My own life provides the leisure that Josef Pieper calls the Basis of Culture, enough of it that I can take the time to ruminate on several facets of Chesterton’s clever jibe. At this stage, for myself, I can’t complain. But I pray that I’ll always have the wisdom to know what I want and need to go without, for the sake of being content.

 

 Linking up to Weekends with Chesterton.

12 thoughts on “It takes wisdom to be content – or discontent.

  1. All I can say is WOW!! When I first was going to be a mother I carried The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding around with me every where I went. As I was trying to figure out my life at 21, in my heart I wanted a peaceful life that they wrote about and longed for a kind of quiet raising of ones families. Then years later, when life became too crazy and to hectic, we read Margin. In fact it is still on my bookshelf. It I think saved our lives then as we had not a bit of margin. We have pretty much never strayed very far from what those books taught us. I still find peace in working with my hands, growing our own food, and filling my pantry with things that remind me that a simpler life is really the best medicine. Though I will admit, I do like computers and I pods so I am not there completely. 🙂
    Well thought out and I so enjoy your thinking posts.

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  2. I'm at the same stage of life as you, and grateful for the ability to live a quiet and simple life. It's harder for moms with kids at home, but I'm encouraged by a number of the bloggers I read who are managing to “keep the main thing the main thing”. If you build the habit when there's a lot of pushback in your life, it becomes part of you permanently.

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  3. Oh, I soooo agree with this and especially, “Note that intangibles such as decency and good manners are on the list, to remind us that civilization is more than physical comforts.” The more comforts it seems we have the more inward focused we become leading to a deeper selfishness. And it impacts our traditions and how we celebrate and honor (or don't depending on the depths of our selfishness) those we love. This has been the bee in my bonnet of late.

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  4. I appreciate your ramblings! This is a topic that I am in a constant state of sorting through, mentally. We have so much available to us, and I want to be thankful for that, but also to know when too much is too much.

    Thank you for your kind comments on my blog. It means a lot to me that you take the time to stop by occasionally!

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  5. I love that LLL book. 🙂 It is well worn.

    What a trade off. We trade those things that really offer contentment for cheap “stuff” that just came off the factory lines.

    Your insights are always valuable to me. Thank you for posting this.

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  6. I so love that you quoted The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding! One of my favorite books. When I was having my first baby, my mom gave me her old copy from the 70's. I've since bought newer versions, but I always loved that old 70's version.

    Great reminder to be content with less and that more stuff does not make us happier. And, how things like decency and good manners are worth more than factory-made items.

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  7. Such excellent words, GJ. I found the same true in Mexico, when I visited there on many mission trips years ago — large families living in dirt floor huts, sleeping 2 or 3 to a hammock. But they were happy, busy, content. They were pretty normal for their immediate culture. They might have wanted some advancement, but it didn't disturb their peace, it seemed to me. I did not detect anger or resentment there.

    The intangibles — how we trade them away! How we long for them back! Peace in our hearts and homes is true treasure.

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  8. I am just reading this post and thinking we must be on the same wave length. My latest post had underpinnings that mirror this post. Thank you for being such a great read.

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  9. These are words of wisdom…so true. I was talking with some co-workers the other day (most of them are 20-30 years younger than me). I can remember the wringer washing machine my mother used and making formula from scratch. When my daughter was born I used powdered formula (an improvement), but used cloth diapers, having to wash them in the bathtub between trips to the laundromat. I think that my co-workers thought I must be ancient!
    I think back to those days and remember a sense of peace and contentment that is rare these days.

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