Content is a word that can change in meaning depending on whether the first or last syllable is stressed. When I write I always try to be content with my content. The English language is a delight for authors yet for ESL students it’s a source of confusion. Let’s explore.
I have a small shed just outside my front door which is part of a carport. The contents of the shed include tools, old paint tins, recycling totes, and stuff. The stuff is hard to classify and hard to remove. Being a clutter-free kind of person I am not content with the state my shed is in. On recycling day I pull out the totes filled with other waste I’ve produced. I mutter internally about doing something about the contents of this space. It’s a useful space, if managed properly. I tell myself: Why do I have three boxes of rocks and shells from past holidays? What is the use of three paint trays? When was the last time I used two golf putters? How can I ever part with my childhood fishing rod?
Just try removing or resolving the contents of your thoughts when it comes to assessing what you really need in life, as opposed to what you think you need. This exercise can be very contentious. It’s an ongoing internal struggle to justify what amounts to the content of your life. Your brain must sort things out before you can do any external sorting. My contention is that people like Marie Kondo make this process look easy, while for most it’s not that simple.
Those who can’t cope with the reality of their stuff end up being labelled hoarders. When this happens family and friends may not be content to let the situation go by without an intervention. We are so fascinated with how we stuff our stuff that a reality television series called ‘Hoarders’ has been broadcast for a decade on various networks.
While some seem content to live amongst the contents of their mess, others are more interested in examining themselves. Part of the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind; “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The content of one’s life is hard to determine. Most of the time I feel a sense of contentment. As much as I can bring order to my world, I feel generally contented. Sometimes that feeling crosses the border into happiness; an upgrade if you like. When I take into account my relationships, my history, my personal successes, I feel contentment. It often comes out as a deep sigh, sometimes audible, as I lay my head down on my pillow and wait for sleep each night. It’s a pleasing moment. The shed can wait.
My wife and I made our first Airbnb booking recently. We researched various sites on the internet, jotting down pros and cons as we went along. We had booked through VRBO before and were impressed with their consistent standard, but they had no properties listed in the travel area. The other option of a hotel just proved too costly for our length of stay. Knowing we would be doing some family entertaining we needed space so we picked a property listed as ‘An entire house!’ We had an expectation based on it being ‘An entire house!’
I find that people who say they never have expectations are lying. Everyone has expectations for themselves: Not many people refer to themselves as a total screw-up. Everybody expects to move through their day with most of their needs being met. We may not get all that we want but we expect we will not die trying. When someone tells us something, at first at least, we believe them. We expect that they are telling us the truth. Having an expectation for ourselves and of others leads to trust when that expectation is fulfilled on a consistent basis. For example when I visit a friend I have a simple expectation that I will be greeted with a welcoming gesture. If that is not forthcoming, over time, I will cease to visit.
A worry free philosophy isn’t realistic. If we say we don’t expect anything from anyone I wonder where that leads us as a community. I suspect a period of reduced expectations leads to stifling disappointment and chronic despair. At the other end of that spectrum is an obsession with fulfilling an expectation we have for ourselves. That can also be crippling: We must face each day feeling that we can ‘measure up’.
When we hear the declaration, “I’m expecting!”, all manner of expectant thoughts start to percolate. Hope is never greater than when we hear news of an impending birth. We wish the parent-to-be the very best because we expect the outcome will be practically perfect in every way. We want to believe in great expectations. Every life deserves an existence set to the highest standard. I’ve never heard a teacher say to her students on opening day, “I don’t expect much from you this year.” When I don’t live up to the expectations I have for myself, I let myself down and I feel I disappoint others around me. Having an expectation means you’re looking for the best.
Just as we have been instructed by our parents, we expect our children will behave for good reasons. We all have felt the sting of an elder suggesting that they felt disappointment in us after we had made a poor decision. The positive message being; I understand the value of standards.
Honesty is a value I hold to a high standard. The Airbnb ad was not accurate: It wasn’t a whole house. It wasn’t clean. It only had one closet! I was disappointed. I will learn from it.
I’ve been on several non-profit Boards serving a membership as well as clients. A question that often comes up is how to encourage involvement. In most cases you would think that the reward would be self-evident: A volunteer would feel that supporting the organization is satisfaction enough. A ticket buyer gets pleasure out of the fundraising event and that is pleasure enough. A donor is getting a tax receipt. A member is happy to be part of something important within the community. ‘Virtue is its own reward,’ so sayeth theologian J.H. Newman.
Yet we live in a time of perks, value added, frequent flyer, loyalty punch card carrying, ‘what’s in it for me’ sense of privilege. It’s a bit ironic I suppose that often these benefits are there for the already privileged. We can believe that what goes around comes around, as long as the good stuff comes around to us with regularity.
One of my current volunteer gigs is at a Therapeutic Riding stable. The best perk is nuzzling with the horses. I was a bit nervous at first since these beasts are large! After a time they got used to me and I felt less intimidated as I cleaned their stall and tacked them up for their riders. The volunteer coordinator keeps my interest up by offering a variety of jobs. Coffee is in the kitchen as well as a cookie jar labelled ‘Volunteer Diet’. Like most non-profits who value their volunteers highly I am invited to appreciation BBQs, pizza nights and discounted sales tables. Communities large or small owe a debt to those who serve without payment and within a meaningful context a hearty ‘Thank You’ is often enough compensation for my hard work.
Playing with the word Reward by examining its levidrome Drawer, I can see what I get in a general sense from volunteering: I Draw on my skills to help out. I’m a Drawer, a Creator who gives time, energy and experience and looking backward this act is its own Reward. Fun!
I no longer feel I want a reward for its own sake. Achieving something that I have worked hard at has brought an expectation for recognition. As a boy I would have been disappointed if I didn’t receive that trophy, ribbon or certificate to attest to my brilliance. Now that I’m an adult I am less ambitious for a tangible outcome. I’m enjoying the journey of discovery. I can witness my own pleasure and be glad in it.
Many old folks (especially white, rich ones) feel entitled. Back in 2005, Canadian Government bureaucrat David Dingwall famously fought for his perceived entitlements. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIo-bEsoMgA
A recent Saturday Night Live skit with Idris Elba as an ‘Impossible Hulk’ showed us what entitlement can look like when placed in a superhero context.
The horses I’m caring for, love an apple after work. I’m still a sucker for a free cookie.
At this stage of my existence I refer to myself as a witness. I enjoy being that fly on the wall. It’s a safe vantage point, less messy than open engagement on the field of life. I show my enthusiasm for this role by sharing my opinions in a cheerleading fashion. There is a lot of the Rah, Rah in me still.
My enthusiastic side comes out at surprising moments. I once started exclaiming excitedly over a colourful bird while attending a lesson for a summer job. The instructor of the youth assembled gave me a disdainful look, saying dismissively that there were lots of that species in the area. Another time as a young father I rallied my son to hurry and see ‘the coolest car’ that had just parked near a store my wife was taking us to. My poor little guy got troubled when his mother didn’t share my interest and proceeded with her shopping, leaving our son not knowing where his loyalties should lie.
It’s a treat to see others go public with their enthusiasm. I once happened upon a colleague, new to our city, scampering about unashamedly in a small park within a busy intersection. She was fascinated to find cherry blossoms in the tree above her head and crocus bulbs bursting through green grass. This, on a February day while the rest of the country was still gripped in an icy grasp. I felt her joy.
Hope springing eternal will make me enthuse over what I’m seeing. First moments, signs of promise, a young person earnestly playing a musical instrument or actors skillfully inhabiting their characters may bring tears of rapture. My eagerness sometimes comes in a rush of emotion that can be startling. A few bars of music may stimulate me to remember a time gone by and I’ll want to share the memory with someone, anyone, and right now!
Based on these occasional inspired outbursts I might think of myself as an Enthusiast. What an exulted title! It would be fun to be introduced as such with appropriate fanfare at the entrance to a black tie event. Enthusiast implies you might be an expert in your chosen field or have exceptional talent, neither of which would be true for me. I know a few people who might be deemed bird enthusiasts, jogging enthusiasts or film enthusiasts. When I was a boy I maintained a stamp collection that earned me a scouting badge but like the character in the film Adaptation, I lost interest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y410SQD2mz8
Thing is, my rhapsodies come in spurts. My passions never last long enough to acquire sporting trophies, fitness goals, artistic excellence or any sort of public acclaim. I just love feeling enthused, however long it lasts.
That’s the heart of the word for me: Enthusiasm is an expression of my love.
When do you feel satisfied? Some people are never satisfied. Wow! How terrible that must be. The only Rolling Stones song that I ever really liked was ‘Satisfaction’. It may be no accident that this song is the second most covered title in history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrIPxlFzDi0
Can you live with a normal level of satisfaction? I used to feel content as a teen if two out of four aspects on my life score card were judged by me to be satisfying. School life? Check. Part time work? Check. Family? Not so much, grounded this week. Social life? Disabled due to previous aspect.
I got a natural high when all four entries on my life score were not just ticked but starred! If I let that level of feeling pleased with myself become noticeable, I would soon have hell to pay from my mom who would tell me to wipe that smug look off my face. “Pride cometh before a fall” she stated, leaving me realizing that my brief record of 4 checks on my life score card was now reduced to three. This quirky version of ‘Satisfaction’ seems appropriate to my angst filled teen years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jadvt7CbH1o
The kid in me feels dissatisfied when I can’t get my way. The adult has to intervene in such situations, hopefully before I cross my arms and stamp my feet. We like to get what we want, when and how we want it. But that selfish sentiment, over time and if our adult selves don’t speak up, can lead to a sense of entitlement. This unsatisfied sense and the sense of outrage, are two senses best muted for our own social development and the happiness of those around us. At some point we must learn that we can’t have everything. The world can only be our oyster until we find a foul one; if that makes any sense.
It’s true that when we lack satiation, we feel disappointment. I count myself lucky when I feel satiated. In my childhood, after Halloween night, it was never difficult for me to put away the candy, while my sister ate herself sick. I don’t relate this in a smug, or self-satisfied way, just as fact. Much later, when it was clear my sister was an alcoholic, I wondered if there was a connection between slowness to feel satiated and addiction. If you can’t get no satisfaction or if it doesn’t come quickly enough, do you double down and risk everything to find it?
Coming to grips with getting a satisfactory grade in school, being a satisfactory player on a team, having a satisfying relationship or satisfactorily accomplishing any task will help us to not feel down about life or about ourselves. We can sing the blues on occasion and then we must get up and move on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9NijFed0dI
Oh! But the times I have sung out my dissatisfaction, like this, in a long hot shower. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRve0Nh9_uE