Monday, January 18, 2010

Choose Contentment: It's Just More Fun

One morning last week, while taking a break from working, I stepped into the kitchen to heat up what must have been my fifth or sixth cup of coffee. While I waited for the beeping microwave to tell me that my drink was ready, I stood by the window and watched as my kids played happily with the children next door. It was an extremely cold day. Bundled up tightly by over-protective mothers, the children looked like Oompa Loompas working the frozen yogurt wing of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Despite their extreme arctic attire, the kids were obviously freezing. Above the collars of their puffy coats, I could see little lips turning blue and tiny teeth chattering all the way from the kitchen window. Wearing nothing but a t-shirt and some old jeans, I stepped into the garage in my bare feet, the cold air cutting through me the moment I set foot outside the door. "Hey!" I hollered to my frigid little munchkins, "aren't you guys cold?"

"No!" they all answered simultaneously (shaking and shivering as the word stammered off their frozen tongues). They insisted they were just fine. My daughter, Emerson, even went so far as to try and convince me that she was hot and needed to take her coat off--an idea I quickly vetoed. Then, happy, laughing, and energetically attempting to talk over one another as they played, the children resumed running aimlessly about like little Eskimos on speed. Believing they would be okay a little while longer, I decided to let them stay out for a few more minutes. It wasn't long, however, before they, themselves, conceded defeat to the elements and retreated to our basement to play a round of their favorite indoor game: Let's Wreck Mom and Dad's Basement, Then Escape Next Door Before They Realize What We've Done and Make Us Clean It Up!

Watching my kids play with their friends made me think about how special childhood is. I couldn't help but smile and take a moment to remember what it was like to be that little and care-free. I can still remember rushing home from elementary school, throwing my book bag in the corner, promising my mother I wouldn't argue about doing my homework later if I could just go and play with my friends first (always a lie), and spending the rest of the day pretending to be a superhero, a soldier, a sports star, or some ferocious beast from another planet sent to terrorize my little sister and her friends as they played with their baby dolls or started accidental fires in her bedroom via her Easy-Bake Oven.

As I sat there thinking about life as a kid, it suddenly occurred to me why being a child is so great. It's because kids (most kids, anyway) are content! They don't know that there's another option. Oh sure, they have their occasional periods of unhappiness. They get upset when mom or dad doesn't buy them the candy bar they want or they finally open the big Christmas gift they've been eyeing since it was placed under the tree, only to discover that it's a box of socks and knitted sweaters. But those are brief emotional episodes, not outlooks on life that define who they are or how they feel most of the time. For the most part, one moment's crying child is the next moment's giggling youngster.

For various reasons, however, as we grow older, contentment becomes a moving target. For many people, it slips away without them even realizing exactly when it happens. One day we're running in the backyard, happy enough to have our favorite toy and know that Mom is making tacos for dinner. The next, we're comparing our acne-covered face to the good-looking athlete at school and wondering why God has it in for us. And that's just the beginning. As we become more and more aware of people's criticisms and expectations, we stop seeing ourselves as the superhero able to vanquish the forces of evil over recess, and become extremely conscious of our own shortcomings and limitations amidst the challenges of the real world. The comparisons don't end as we emerge "maturely" from our teen years. Gone might be the days of comparing how fast, strong, or good-looking we are compared to the other guys in gym, but there are new things that we allow to attack our sense of self-esteem. As dads, we still too often compare: Do I make the money society dictates I should make? Am I giving my wife and kids a good enough life? (By the way, what defines a "good life?") How does my job, my education, my position at work or in the community compare to others? Am I saving enough money? Am I doing enough to get ahead? How do people view my house, my career, my cars, my kids? Am I somebody people respect? Then, once we achieve what we thought we needed in order to feel secure, a whole new barrage of concerns arise: How do I take care of this money? What if I lose this great job? Sure, things are great now; but how do I ensure my family will be okay tomorrow? Far too often, staying content is like trying to catch jello shot out of a t-shirt launcher--you have it in your hand long enough to experience what it feels like for an instant, only to have it splatter through your fingers before you can get a good grip.

I know all this because I wrestle to remain content. Although I am incredibly blessed with a beautiful wife who loves me, gorgeous kids with whom I get to spend time and all of whom are healthy and happy, a nice house, the chance to be self-employed doing something I love, and with many other things I selfishly take for granted everyday, I still waste tons of time worrying about tomorrow or wishing this or that was better. But all of my emotional ups and downs have taught me one, important thing. Contentment is not found in changing circumstances, it's found in appreciating what you have regardless of the circumstances. People who are content determine their own priorities and set their own goals. They don't let society dictate to them what is or falls short of "success." Content fathers master the art of doing what they can without wasting time worrying about things beyond their control. Most of all, content fathers allow themselves the luxury of appreciating what they have here and now no matter what anyone else thinks. Yes, they can dream big and set ambitious goals, but they don't define themselves by whether or not those dreams become realities or those goals always get met. The phrase "I'm content" isn't an excuse to be lazy and do nothing. Instead, contentment is an attitude about life that allows us to pursue our ambitions free of the worries that steal our joy and cause us to miss the awesome life we have right now.

In closing, I've come to the following conclusion: Contentment is a choice! That's right, you have to choose to be content. As dads, it is easy to be ungrateful. It's easy to get resentful of that jerk at work who isn't half as smart or doesn't work nearly as hard as you, yet got the promotion you wanted anyway. It's tempting to sulk over financial burdens. Who among us wouldn't struggle with feelings of failure if we suddenly found ourselves unable to pay the mortgage or find work? But why do we struggle with such feelings? Could it be that it's because we've quietly surrendered the right to determine our own contentment to what other's around us have told us it is that should make us feel happy, successful, important, and so on? Have we let the culture we live in define what it takes to make us feel we're a real man and a good father, rather than deciding along with our wife what our own priorities and ground rules for happiness will be?

Choose contentment, dads. It's just more fun. Finding and keeping it means consciously taking time to appreciate your kids, your health, your gorgeous wife, your friends, and your talents (even if society doesn't pay well for them). Even if, God forbid, you're not healthy, your spouse is no longer with you, or one of your kids is sick, contentment is still there for the taking--more challenging to grasp, to be sure; but still there. So give yourself a break. Allow yourself the luxury of being content. Only, don't forget that it's a decision you may have to consciously make ever day--perhaps every minute--until you learn to catch jello without it splattering all over your hand.
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1 comment:

  1. I could not agree more, people often ask me how I can be so happy and encouraging, I tell them I have experienced enough tragedy in life and frowned enough, I choose to smile and enjoy my life. Rather than being defined by the trials that come my way I choose to define myself through my response to the wind and the waves of life.