Two weeks ago I was in confession, admitting sins of jealousy and just generally not being happy with what I have, when the priest spoke up. This particular priest doesn't usually have much to say in the confessional, at least to me, so it intrigued me immediately. He told me I needed to have a spirit of contentment and gave some other good advice that I instantly knew I would forget. And I did. But the phrase "spirit of contentment" hasn't left my mind since.
I have thought about it. Struggled with it. Tossed it around and decided I know I need it, I want it, but I have absolutely no idea how to obtain it.
What I have no trouble with is outlining how I am not content.
Most of my discontent centers around finances, not surprisingly. If only we just had a little more. I wouldn't have to worry about the grocery list, or that dreaded second week of the pay period. Our kids could go to private school. We could have cable t.v. and a van. And maybe a nicely landscaped back yard.
Don't get me started on the house. I spend a lot of time upset at its very small size, our dreary neighborhood and, until last summer, the fact that it had only one bathroom (thanks to my awesome father-in-law, we have now increased our bathroom count by a half!). Our bed is broken and I covet one day owning a dresser and bedside tables that are not hand-me-downs from my childhood.
I could go on and on. Yes, I spend way too much time thinking about what I don't have.
A couple nights ago I was thinking about this and started to wonder if maybe we were considered lower class. At least we must be lower middle.
Oh, how embarrassingly naive I was. Painfully naive.
I couldn't find a consensus about exact income levels and class, but it's safe to say no one would consider us lower or even lower middle. Oh no. By some accounts we would even fall into the upper middle class.
That was the kick-in-the-pants I desperately needed.
More than half of the country makes less than we do. Or, I should say, more than half of the country makes a lot less than we do.
In my little world, everyone has a lot. People own big homes, pretty furniture, shop at Target whenever they want, and their kids are dressed beautifully. The church I attend, the stores I frequent, the museums, the parks - they are all, for the most part, filled with people who have a lot of money. They drive vans, eat out, hire babysitters, and own iPhones and iPads. They aren't filthy rich, but they are living well.
I was starting to think everyone did. But they don't.
Just because I don't know them doesn't mean they don't exist. Just because I don't drive through their neighborhoods or go to their churches doesn't mean they aren't there. Maybe I should start going there more often.
The fact is millions of people have less than I do. Millions of people probably dream about owning our tiny house, or our two cars. They probably long to live in our safe neighborhood where their kids can play in their fenced-in backyard without fear of being shot. They wouldn't mind that the fence isn't a privacy fence, or that it's broken, or that we can't afford to fix up the half of our yard that doesn't have grass.
While I wish we had a little more so I could buy my kids more new clothes, millions of people would be more than happy to get a summer wardrobe at the nice Salvation Army down the street. They'd have a field day in the bags of my clothes that I've sent to the attic because I don't like them much anymore. And they'd surely eat well on the food we can afford, even on a tight budget.
And school? I'm pretty confident they'd be more than thrilled to live in our very sought-after public school district.
It's so easy to focus on what I don't have. It's human nature to want more comfort, to pay too much attention to what those around you are doing, buying, consuming. But it brings me great stress, so why do it? Comparing myself to others doesn't make me happy. It stings.
Having a spirit of contentment, on the other hand, would be so freeing. To truly be happy with what you have or, for that matter, with nothing (because, really, it's about being happy separate from material things, isn't it?), sounds liberating.
It's what we are called to do: Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. (Timothy 6:6-8)
Our possessions are temporary. It's not why we're here. They don't make us holier or improve our relationships. In fact, you could make a strong argument that they do the exact opposite.
Three years ago, I would have sworn to you that I would know true contentment if I could only have a child. I would have bet my life on it.
And what am I doing now? I am praying and hoping for another. Not a second, but a third.
I highly doubt my priest remembers my confessions, or even knew for sure that it was me two Saturdays ago, but if he did, he could definitely draw the conclusion that I have a serious problem with contenment. Maybe that is why he said what he said - he was tired of hearing the same confession from me, that I always want what others have. Wanting children is noble and good, so perhaps there is more patience there. But now it's getting silly.
My pride is hoping that it was, instead, the Holy Spirit nudging him to offer the contentment advice. I suppose it doesn't matter, though. It's between me and God and He surely knows I need help.
So what am I going to do about it? I'm not sure. I think I need to change my outlook. Try to remember those who have less than I do. Every time I am jealous of a material item someone has that I don't, I will remind myself of the average income in the country and the harsh reality that so many live with so little.
I will try to remember that if I am truly happy, I could live free of things. And, in that spirit, I will try to get rid of things I don't need and stop myself from buying new. See if we can live with less and make it more like a game (it worked with cutting cable!).
I'll also remind myself that my husband works hard for us (two jobs) and provides us with so much. To be anything less than content is a slap-in-the-face to him. And I'll also tell myself that we'd have a lot more money if I worked. I absolutely love being a stay-at-home mom to Clara and Luke and I'd have it no other way. So if I put it in that perspective, I am content with what we have (or don't have).
I remember years ago, when we lived in a bigger home, visiting a friend whose house was much smaller than ours. I thought it would be so nice to live more modestly, have less to clean and less clutter. Less to worry about, I thought. That just goes to show that my problem with discontent may have less to do with wanting more, and more to do with wanting something different than I have.
I can only hope that I can begin to look at my surroundings with rose-colored glasses. That I can see and appreciate all that I have, apart from the material, and that I can truly have a spirit of contentment. Because, honestly, with my loving husband and two beautiful kids, our families and friends, and my faith, I have more than I could have ever dreamed.