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On Contents and Contentments

I heard an advertisement refer to Black Friday this year as “Thanksgetting.” I enjoy wordplay, but this one makes me shudder at the possibility that we are reducing what I consider the purest of holidays to a brief pause for a nice meal before it’s back to the materialistic pursuit of happiness. Thanksgetting is an oxymoron; when we are focused on getting, we are rarely centered on thankfulness.

Having a house or a belly overstuffed with contents does not ensure we know anything about true contentment. Our English word “content” (con TENT), which in our culture often connotes a satisfaction blocking greater ambition and success, has its roots in Latin and French words meaning “contained.” The contents of our houses or wallets are contained in them, but we struggle to know deep contentment unless we can contain our obsession with more and more getting. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” That sounds like heresy in our consumer society and a serious threat to our economy! But I think Russell was onto something important; a constant desire for getting more displaces gratitude, joy, and contentment.

When I visited our daughter Jessica a few months ago in Lebanon, we read aloud each day from The Prophet by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. Here is an excerpt from a section titled “On Houses” in that classic book:

And tell me. . .what have you in these houses?

And what is it you guard with fastened doors?

Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?

Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span

the summits of the mind?

Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of

wood and stone to the holy mountain?

Tell me, what have you in these houses?

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy

thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Reading Gibran’s words, I imagine being seated at the banquet of life with him and just telling the waiter: “I’ll have what he’s having—peace, remembrances, beauty, and a side of gratitude.”

Whatever the contents of your house or your bank account or your resume, I wish you this Thanksgiving the wisdom to know that happiness is closer to wanting what you have than having what you want and a heart content with the awareness that who you are striving to become is immeasurably more valuable than what you are striving to get.

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