Quote of the Day

Monday, December 7, 2009

gratitude, happiness and the dangers of being content

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said,
“Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted and you said, “A box.”
“What For?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have.” You said.
Well here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

--a dedication from John Steinbeck to his friend and editor, Pascal Convici, published in the preface to
East of Eden

I don't usually do the whole "what are you thankful for" thing on Thanksgiving. It's not that I'm ungrateful, it's just that I've always kind of felt like it was one of those traditions that has lost meaning over the years and become almost a mindless, perfunctory thing, much like New Years resolutions or Valentine's Day. I believe that being thankful, along with doing little things to be a better person and showing loved ones that we care about them, should be on the daily agenda, not something we need to set aside a holiday for. But let me cut that rant short. The point is that, in reflecting on the holiday of Thanksgiving the other week and looking back on my life in the last year, I realize there is a lot I have to express gratitude for. Yes, I know I'm a little late, but
(see above) fuck it, why not today?

So here goes...

I am grateful for the people in my life, for the family I often take for granted but who are always there for me, always thinking of me, and who I've often had to push away to realize that I do actually need them and want them there, even if some of them still drive me insane at times. And for the friends life has seen fit to put in my life and keep there, those people who accept me and don't judge, who at times seem to be able to read my mind and know exactly when I need to talk, or when I just need a drink, who keep me grounded and keep me young.

And the people who've come into my life in the past year, I'm grateful for the new life they breathe into my routine and for the promise the future holds for whatever journeys we may take together. Even the people I've only met for a little while, and who I may never cross paths with again, I'm thankful for the short time we've been able to spend together, for the wisdom and insight they may have graced me with, and for the laughter we may have shared.

I am also very grateful to have steady employment, especially in this less-than-ideal economy, and especially after the incredibly humbling experience of being unemployed for a long period of time. I'm thankful for the challenge and the purpose my job brings to my life at the moment, for the financial security which gives me peace of mind and allows me to continue living in this beautiful city, and for having the time to enjoy it for the next year or two while I figure out what the next step will be and attempt to plan my future.

I think that maybe most of all, I'm thankful for my current state of mind, the place I'm at now in my life. Looking back at a year ago this time, I'm just grateful to be free of the chains of guilt and doubt and internal chaos that had held me as prisoner for a while, and the unmotivated rut I was in for some time preceding. I'm grateful to have found myself again, and, I think (or hope at least!), to have become a better version of myself.

And still, in spite of all this, despite the fact that I feel confident and happy and maybe the most grounded and centered I've ever been, I still feel a bit of malcontent stirring up in me at times. It seems that there has always been that restlessness just at the back of my mind. In the past I haven't always known what to make of it, sometimes it would make me feel guilty, as if I wasn't thankful for everything I have. As if I were greedy. But recently I've been thinking, maybe it's not such a bad thing to be greedy in this sense. Because when it comes to life, who ever really gets enough? Who ever really gets to do all they want to and see and be all they want to?

And that little feeling; it's not really an ungratefulness, or even taking things for granted (although I am certainly guilty of that sometimes). It's more of a reminder, I think, that as good as life is right now, there's more out there; there's more to see and do, more to be. And that doesn't mean I need to rush headlong into change just for the sake of it, it simply means I need to be aware, and to not allow myself to become too stationary or too comfortable , or ignore that little restless voice for the sake of security or comfort.

And I can’t help but think that this is part of the human condition. That there is a restlessness inherent in our nature that makes us never quite content. Maybe we are destined, for better or worse, to be always searching, always looking for something right around the corner or over the next horizon. Maybe we're all born to be wandering souls, to a greater or lesser extent. And to a certain extent anyway, who's to say that's a bad thing? Because that sense of restlessness, maybe that's what keeps us moving forward, always wanting to know more, to be more. Maybe that's what keeps us striving to be stronger, to be smarter, more productive, more successful. Because if we're completely satisfied with every aspect of our lives, what motivation is there to keep growing and learning? If you're content sitting at the bottom of the mountain, why climb it?

So I have to think that contentedness is not a natural state for a person. Because contentedness breeds complacency, and complacency is for cows in the field, chewing their cud, satisfied to remain the same, day after day, because they have no dreams, no vision. And maybe that's what really separates human beings as a species (well ok, besides opposable thumbs): that ambition, that longing for adventure and drive for change. That the grass is always greener, not just on the other side of the fence, but on the other side of the mountain, the other end of the ocean. It's what keeps us moving and exploring, inventing and discovering and building.

Of course it can also go too far, that drive can prove detrimental to one's health and happiness. After all, if you're
constantly on the move and never standing still, it's hard to ever really enjoy anything, or to find any sort of peace. And when you're always looking for something bigger and better it is very easy not to see and appreciate what's right in front of you.

So how does one find that balance? At first glance it seems like such a blatent contradiction to say that discontentedness is congruent with well-being. In fact, I'm pretty sure that any English dictionary will tell you that
"happiness" and "contentedness" are synonyms, but personally I see a glaring difference. And I don't know if it's the definitions of these two words which have been twisted and misinterpreted over the years or if I just have a freakishly slanted way of seeing things, but I can't help thinking the real key to happiness has to be this: to be at peace with yourself; to love yourself, flaws and all, and be present in the here and now, to be grateful for all you have and enjoy the good and the beauty around you, but to still retain that little bit of restlessness and discontent that keeps us always searching, always questioning and always striving to find a better life and the very best version of ourselves.

Because maybe the box is never full, and maybe that's how it's supposed to be; that deep down in our very DNA we were blessed and cursed with an insatiable appetite for life, a limitless capacity for joy, sorrow, curiosity, and everything in between. But just because the box can never be filled doesn't mean we'll stop trying. And it doesn't mean there can't be a whole lot of amazing stuff inside.

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