Emotional Tool: Contentment

This one sounds so zen.  This is the one, ladies.  This is the sneaker wave.  Contentment seems like it should require zero work, like it would come from floating in a pool with a lemonade.  I want my emotional homework to be, “Find yourself a flattering swim suit and a pool floatie.  It’s time to work on your contentment.”

But, that’s not how it works.  Not by a long shot.  Or at least, not when you’re living without a pool, or a yard, in a cold blustery spring, squeezing drops of pink eye medication into your kids’ squinting faces, rubbing excema cream on the baby, and boiling eggs for your husband’s lunch while trying not to burn the cookies you agreed to make for school.  Hello yesterday.

But today is today, and I’ve gathered a little more information, courtesy of the most unlikely source: my fabled friends, whom I haven’t seen in forever.

There is a group of us who keep an ongoing group text.  It buzzes alerts on my smartphone throughout the day as we share jokes, pictures of our kids, harried selfies driving everywhere in hoodies and mom-buns, praises for potty training, and prayer requests for blood clots and heart attacks.  This is real deal stuff, and these girls are IT for me.  I am honored to be part of their mix.

This morning I texted them that I have been struggling with contentment lately.  The winds of desires tossed me around: demanding to be anywhere but here, and do anything but cook another meal, wash another dish, and break up another fight.  It was more than spring fever.  Discontent with my regular old life was tearing my heart up and keeping me from being present, or happy.

I hit send, and went for a walk with the stroller to clear my head.  Throughout the morning, replies buzzed back, “Me too,” they read.  These were from moms in all manner of situations:  A fellow writer like me.  A mama who has had a heck-of-a-time with ER visits this winter for breathing problems with her boys.  A pastor’s daughter-in-law.  A tradesman’s wife.  A mama who just bought a house in the country (my dream).  A mama who rents.  In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, they were all struggling with discontent.  Amazing, mature, God-fearing ladies who love their husbands and children – and they were all struggling with discontent.

Which made me realize:  it’s not just me.

As one dear friend texted: “Bah.  Humans.”   She’s right: it’s the human condition.  It’s part of selfishness and the promise of more that tempted Adam and Eve out from under God’s covering.

I would even go so far as to say that it’s terribly insidious.  We don’t see it as devastating as a discontented marriage leading to adultery.  But, like the root network of mushrooms, it will pop up in every place where the conditions are right.  Driving my kids to school in our old beat-up van with tape holding the armrests together, I sigh heavily, and wonder how much longer we can milk along this vehicle.  It used to be our dream car, and it still has the best cargo room ever.  But the growing list of maladies weighs heavy on my brain.  In this brooding discontent, I grab my smartphone to check the time.  My thumb instinctively presses on the corner of the screen that is permanently popped out  – the casualty of sitting on it one too many times.  Who decided that placing the power of the internet into a brick smaller than a wallet that’s squashed into mom jeans was ever a good idea?  Seriously.  In this mindset, I easily go through my day grumbling.  In the mirror, I grumble about the perma-frown growing on my face, and the wrinkles it’s growing.  Thus, the circle loops endlessly.

This grumbling discontent carries a great amount of energy.  Not energy to make life better, mind you.  But a vast capacity to daydream, procrastinate, and binge-watch anything that will distract me from how terrible life is right now.

Sounds like the abundant life of a Christ-follower, right?

Hmm…

This is when contentment becomes a choice. It’s deeply necessary to make this choice yourself, not to be cajoled by any concerned spouse, or well-meaning blogger (ahem).  There is an order of operations to this life: a foundation within your heart from which to engage with the trajectory of your life.  It’s not just demanding to get your way because you want it – because once you get it, THEN you will be happy.  That’s a lie. First get happy with what you have, and who you are in the Lord.

It’s not an easy choice, but with a hard pull to the right, it will steer the rudder back into the right direction.  I’ve gripped the wheel, grunted, and engaged my core enough times to see that it can work.

Contentment 101:

  1. Reach out.  It took the static in my brain out of isolation and plopped it in the middle of community.  Sure I was discontent, but I wasn’t alone in it.  Which has some comfort to it.  It also took the shame out of the equation.  Not one person said, “Really?  That’s weird.  I don’t really struggle with that.”
  2. Talk back to yourself.  Go ahead: try it.  I was twirling the idea in my head of maybe *maybe* taking a trip across the country later this year to a conference during the same time my husband had an annual trip planned.  I could tell  I was minimizing the negatives of the idea to myself.  So, I stepped outside, and said aloud to myself, “This is not really going to happen this year.  I know you want it.  But you can’t have everything you want right now.  I care about this, but you’ve got to be okay with living in reality.  Sometimes, the answer is No, and that has to be okay too.”  I swear I’ve said the same things verbatim to my kids.  Maybe we are all still kids.
  3. Listen to the Word.  Or read the Word. It pulls our focus out of the endless wheel of wanting what doesn’t satisfy us.  “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  Colossians 3:2 You are the daughter of the King of Kings, if you belong to Christ Jesus.  That doesn’t give you permission to tantrum like a spoiled palace brat.  But it does give you security by knowing your deep value and worth.  “Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Romans 8:17
  4. Practice thankfulness.  Get specific.  Get tangible.  Notice the things around you for which you are really thankful.  Not just the dismissive list of air in your lungs, clean water, and toilet paper.  I’m NOT nearly enlightened enough to feel anything about these things.  But I AM thankful for my favorite plaid shirt that nobody likes but me.  I’m thankful that my cat likes me best.  I’m thankful that the pen that writes the smoothest is lying crooked over my red notebook on my dresser right now:  proof that, against all convenience and reasonable thinking, I am writing.  I am a writer.

Just as discontent takes practice, contentment takes practice too.  Just like any other emotional tools.  If we want to become familiar with the heft and swing of a tool, we must practice using it until it becomes an extension of us, doing exactly what we intend it to do.

So, take a deep breath… there.

There is no pool and floatie.  Not around here anyway.  But there are emotional tools, a heart submitted to a good Lord, and a few smart brains living in this house to put together to spur one another on to love, good deeds, and contentment.

So!  Now that you’re perfectly content again, you can tackle the direction of your life along with your husband.  There really are avenues to getting some of the things you want out of life.  Planning, calculating, counting, enumerating logistics, hard work:  these are the tactics of adults working to make their dreams come true.  From this place of contentment with what you have, see the possibilities before you.

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Christian motherhood writer & outdoor enthusiast, who recommends everyone go to therapy.

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