In my previous post I sang the praises of the voluntary simplicity movement. I did so (and do so) for various reasons, the primary one being that I just don’t think we will ever be able to halt or even slow our degradation of the environment or our warming of the earth until those of us in highly developed areas begin consciously moving towards simpler and less consumptive lifestyles. Similarly, by embracing the tenets of voluntary simplicity, developing areas of the world might find it possible to eschew increased complexity and consumption for the sake of sustainability even as higher levels of material affluence become available to them. Perhaps one day, given the widespread adoption of simplicity, people all over the world might come to enjoy a way of life that is both nurturing and sustainable – albeit at a decidedly lower level of material affluence than the average U.S. household at present.
Such an achievement couldn’t help but work wonders with respect to fostering trust, cooperation, and peace in a world where all three are in short supply. And if that sounds far too Pollyannaish for your current worldview I simply ask that you try to imagine people all over the world living the lifestyle of the average suburban North American: multiple cars and televisions; cellphones for one and all; computer upgrades at the drop of a hat; a perfectly controlled indoor temperature; vacations whenever they’re needed; new clothes whenever the winds of fashion shift; stuff for comfort, entertainment, and recreation; stuff to keep up with the ever-increasing standards for stuff; and, finally, stuff for the sake of stuff. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? It’s mind-boggling to even contemplate every human being all over Asia, India, and Africa living as so many of us do here in the West. Perhaps it’s easier, then, to imagine a world in which only some of the people live that kind of lifestyle; a world in which resources are funneled from wherever nature might have put them to wherever those with the most economic power dictate that they should go; a world in which more and more of those resources are used to protect the status quo – the position of those in power, the interests and rights of those in power; a world in which those with the least economic power can only survive by being beholden to those that have the most. Oh, silly me! I’ve just described the world as it already exists!
Of course, the recent economic recession with its widespread layoffs and pay cuts and downsizing has left many people involuntarily simplifying their lives who had previously enjoyed the aforementioned material abundance. As difficult as such involuntary simplification might be, however, it is something that we humans are uniquely equipped to do. We are an exceedingly resilient species, an attribute that is our most valuable asset even as it lurks in the shadows as our greatest liability; i.e. we are so adaptively successful that we are overwhelming our environment. The embrace of voluntary simplicity, on the other hand, requires us to do something that has rarely been done in the history of the world by human or animal, something that has rarely even been possible – namely, to choose to take less of that which we have the ways and means to appropriate for ourselves. Historically speaking, contentment has neither been of much value to our survival, nor has it been all that attainable even if it were. In the coming decades, however, our ability to be content with less may just end up being the only thing that saves us as a species.
Within the context of our hyper-materialistic culture the word contentment carries with it certain negatively-viewed connotations such as passivity, meekness, weakness, impotence, dependency, lack of imagination, and perhaps even lack of intelligence. In other words, so some might think, we resign ourselves to contentment because we lack the required confidence, agency, strength, or independence to go out and get what we really want. Or perhaps we’re merely content because of our failure to envision how much better things could be if only this or that or thus-and-such would occur. And so it is that coupling the word contentment with aspiration (and its very own positively-viewed connotations of potency, will, and imagination) achieves a sort of dynamic balance, linguistically speaking.
Aspirational contentment also encompasses multiple meanings which I find appealing. In one sense it conveys the reality that even though we might not be very content in this moment, we nonetheless aspire to be more so in the next. This takes contentment out of the realm of passivity and positions it within the realm of that which is valued, chosen, and worked towards. In another sense aspirational contentment conveys the recognition that contentment is a viable solution to the many problems that we face – perhaps even the best/only solution. We choose to become more content because we have aspirations for a healthier, and more just and peaceful world. We do not lack imagination or intelligence. Quite to the contrary, our movement towards contentment is informed by our keen awareness of the problems inherent in our current way of being and our ability to clearly envision a more life-giving and life-affirming way of being.
Let me now flesh out some of the ideas that I only mentioned in passing in my previous post. I’ll do so by proposing a formal definition of aspirational contentment:
Aspirational contentment begins with openness to the exploration of contentment as a means to personal fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of the diverse life-giving potential of the earth. This process of exploration involves learning to identify contentment when it is present and learning to take action that cultivates and nurtures it when it is not. Continued aspirational contentment involves willingness and readiness to be content – willingness and readiness rooted in personal experiences of contentment that are valued and appreciated as both rewarding and fulfilling for their own sake. As these occasional and fleeting experiences of contentment become more frequent and robust, contentment transitions from a quality that is more transient and state-like to one that is more enduring and trait-like. Thus, with practice, aspirational contentment may transition into the very embodiment of contentment.
Perhaps we can get right to the heart of the matter by exploring the role that fear plays in perpetuating our lack of contentment. Do we fear that others will think less of us? Might that be the primary motivation behind our acquisition of material things or experiences that bolster our sense of status or our desired image? Do we fear not having enough? Might that be the reason underlying our compulsion to earn more and more money regardless of whether our work is actually useful or meaningful? Do we fear being bored? Is that what drives us to engage in newer and more interesting or exciting activities? Do we fear being alone? Could that be what keeps us entangled in relationships that are otherwise not really all that fulfilling? Do we fear the feelings that might arise when the frenzy of modern life settles down and we find ourselves experiencing this strange new phenomenon called stillness?
When we finally come to grips with the role that fear plays in perpetuating our modern existence we might also come to recognize how much courage is required in order to embark upon a journey of aspirational contentment. Far from being the domain of the meek or weak, contentment is the domain of those who are really ready to plumb the depths of being. Imagine waking up in the forest without even a scrap of food in your possession for breakfast. Now imagine taking your alms bowl into town in order to see whether enough abundance or generosity might be found there so as to sustain you for another day. Furthermore, imagine that no matter what happens – whether you come back with a full bowl or an empty one – you will abide in sublime contentment. Mind you, I’m not advocating the adoption of lifestyles that have us living so close to the edge as that; however, I do think that the realization of what we are truly capable of can serve as inspiration for us on our own personal journeys of aspirational contentment.
Mauritanian wooden bowl, gdah, from Nouakchott by Bertramz via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank