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Contentment

contentment“Bruce, your problem is that you lack contentment.” I was stunned when my counselor told me this. I have been seeing him for years. I am beginning to wonder if it is time for a change. His words seemed sharp and judgmental. I felt as if he was ignoring me as a person and making a character judgment instead. Two weeks later, I am still talking about whether this judgment was correct. Polly would say, I’m sure, “Bruce, you are discontented over contentment.” :) Maybe.

Last week, I wrote a post titled, Living with Unrelenting Chronic Pain: Just Another Day in Paradise. I intended to write about contentment then, but the post, as is often the case, went in a different direction from that which I had intended. As that Spirit moves, right? It’s impossible to determine if I am content without first understanding the primary issues that drive my life: chronic illness, chronic pain, loss of career, loss of faith, OCPD, past emotional trauma. Pulling a singular event out of my life and rendering judgment based on it is sure to lead to a faulty conclusion. Think of all the clichés we use about understanding people: walk a mile in their shoes, see things through their eyes, judge not, lest you be judged. If we truly want to understand someone, we must take the time to see, listen, and observe — not something we do much of these days. We live in the social media era, a time when instant judgments are the norm. As a writer, I find it frustrating when people read a post or two and then sit in judgment of my life. In 2,000 or fewer words, I have, supposedly, told them all they need to know about Bruce Gerencser. Of course, I have done no such thing. Want to really get to know me? Sit down, pull up a chair, and let’s break bread and talk. Truly understanding someone requires time, commitment, and effort. I have been married for forty-one years. It took years for Polly and me to really get to know each other. And even today, I wonder, do I really know all there is to know about my lover and friend? I doubt it.

Contentment. What does the word even mean? Happy? Satisfied? Complacent? How do I determine if I am content? Do I even want to be content? Is contentment a desirable human trait? What would the world look like if everyone were content? The Apostle Paul wrote spoke of contentment several times:

  • I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. (Philippians 4:11)
  • But godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Timothy 6:6)
  • And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. (1 Timothy 6:8)
  • Be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. (Hebrews 13:5)

“Bruce, you are an atheist. What the Bible says is irrelevant.” Tell my mind that. These verses were pounded into my head by my pastors and Sunday school teachers, and then, as a pastor, I pounded them into the heads of congregants. Just because you say, “I’m an atheist,” doesn’t mean that decades of training and indoctrination magically disappear. I spent most of my adult life trying to be the model of a “contented” Christian. Try as I might, I came up short.

My father was the epitome of “contentment.” Dad lived by the maxim que sera sera (whatever will be, will be). He was passive and indifferent towards virtually everything. Dad and I were never close. It’s not that we had a bad relationship; it’s just that he treated his relationship with me the way he treated everything else.

I was much more like my mom. Passionate. Contrary. Opinionated. Everything mattered. It comes as no surprise that I am a perfectionist; that I struggle with Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder; that I have high (and often unreasonable) expectations not only for myself, but for others. Ask my children about what they “fondly” call the Gerencser Work Ethic. Oh, the stories they could share. I am sure a few of you are thinking, “are you not admitting here that you are discontent?” Maybe, but I am not convinced that it’s as simple as that — as I shared with my counselor.

You see, I have always been a restless person. Does this mean that I am discontent? Or, perhaps, I am someone who needs a steady diet of new experiences. I bore easily. In my younger years, this resulted in me working a number of different jobs. My resume is quite diverse. The same could be said of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. I loved starting new churches. However, over time, these new churches would become old churches, and when that happened, I was ready to move on. I pastored a church in West Unity, Ohio for seven years. Awesome people. Not a problem in the world. Yet, I resigned and moved on. Why? I was bored. I was tired of the same routine Sunday after Sunday. It wasn’t the fault of people the people I pastored. I was the one with a restless spirit. I was the one looking for matches and gasoline so I could start a new fire.

dogs and contentmentMy counselor asked me if he could wave a magic wand over me and instantly make me content, would I want him to do so? I quickly replied, “absolutely not.” I told him that instant contentment would rob me of my passion and drive. “What kind of writer would I be without restlessness and passion?” I asked. He replied, “ah yes, that which drives creatives.” If being content requires me to surrender my passion and drive, no thanks. I am not interested. Now, I can certainly see where I would be better off if I, at times, let go and let Loki. I have never been good at “be still and know that I am God.” I like being busy. I enjoy “doing.” One of the frustrating problems I face with having fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis is that I can no longer do the things I want to do. My “spirit” is willing, but my “flesh” is weak. Does this lead to discontentment? Maybe, but I am more inclined to think that the inability to do what I want leads to frustration and anger, not discontentment.

I’ll leave it to others to determine if I am content. I will leave it to the people who look at me and “read” my face, thinking my lack of a smile is a sure sign of discontentment; as if there couldn’t be any other explanation for my facial expressions — you know, such as chronic, unrelenting pain. Would it settle the contentment question if I tell people that I am generally happy; that I enjoy writing, shooting photographs, and spending time with my children and grandchildren?  I doubt it. Much like my counselor, people seize on anecdotal stories as evidence for their judgments of my life. I told my counselor about a recent visit to a new upscale pizza place in Defiance. I told him that the waitstaff left a lot to be desired, and our pizzas were burnt on the bottom (the restaurant uses a brick pizza oven). I told our server the pizzas were burnt. The manager gave us a 50 percent discount on our bill. My counselor seized on this story as a good example of my discontentment. Never mind the fact that I rarely complain about the quality of restaurant food. I just don’t do it. I am willing to give a place a pass, having managed restaurants myself. I know how things can get messed up. That said, I always wanted to know when an order didn’t meet customer expectations. No, customers are not always right. Some of them are idiots and assholes. But I couldn’t make things right if complaints never reach my ears.

Am I content? Probably not, but I sure as hell don’t want the kind of contentment preached by the Apostle Paul, modeled by my father, and suggested by my counselor. No thanks . . . I’ll take happiness with a slice of restlessness, and garnished with passion every time.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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20 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Sarah Leitner

    Bruce I love how you are honest about this and how you give a glimpse into how you think. You’ve gone beyond a word such as contentment in a refreshing way. How to describe the how- still working on that!

  2. Avatar
    Zoe

    Sounds like your therapist is not “content” with you.

    Sometimes I wonder if a response like this isn’t just an exhausted human’s response to a long-term personality trait. I mean we all have them, personalities. It could be your therapist is tired and maybe feeling like he/she is failing you. It comes out as “your problem” and does sound like judgement. I wonder though if it isn’t their own projection on to you/us? I wonder if rather than engage the client on the topic they sometimes just get lazy (not intentionally) and blurt out, ‘your problem is you are not content.’ If they slowed it all down maybe it would be better to admit that they don’t know what else to do with you/us and just be honest about it.

    Many years ago I started massage therapy for chronic pain. Not long into my connecting with the therapist I noticed she seemed to despair that she wasn’t helping me. As though her ego was hurt that she couldn’t cure me. She was young and just starting out and I could sense her frustration. During one of our sessions I reminded her to not give up on me and to realize that people like me need people like her to “help” us in our journey. That I didn’t expect a cure and neither should she. That chronic pain was a whole “other” thing. It’s chronic.

    Sometimes the client is the teacher. 🙂

    Recently, a fairly new trauma therapist I am seeing pointed out that I use “catastrophic language”.

    It stung. It felt like a judgement. That was also two weeks ago and it is still on my mind. I feel defensive. Next time I see her I want to share with her the accuracy of her observation and how it is that it is important that I use the words I use as I move forward in my healing. Recovery demands the truth.

  3. Avatar
    Zoe

    BTW, thinking about all the writing I’ve done and the telling of my stories . . . what truth would be told if I avoided using the catastrophic terms. My truth was catastrophic . . . at least to me. Drama queen that I am.

  4. Avatar
    fivehundredpoundpeep

    One thing I had to change, was letting people tell me what to think and feel. I noticed there was sure a lot of people who wanted to busy themselves with “fixing” me or telling me to be another personality. Who should be content in this society like an unthinking droid? To even survive disability and serious medical stuff, one better have some fire still burning inside. Telling someone “to be content” honestly is another way to tell a person to conform and comply. If a therapist told me to be more content, I’d probably laugh them out of the room. For me, it would destroy even my art and drive I have in different areas of life. I have chronic fatigue, and well need to keep passion to keep going or even out get out of bed, so keep your passion Bruce. Too many Christians preach contentment to keep people PASSIVE and SILENT in face of the status quo.

  5. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Contentment. Bullshit. Perhaps the word can be used to describe a side-effect of life, of what I would describe as ‘living’.
    There may or may not be contentment in a moment of time but most often in my experience the thing is either non-existent or short-lived. Completing a repair to a chainsaw that would otherwise go into the parts-heap, makes me feel a certain contentment, a definite giggle in and at the universe of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. In actual fact, my repair might simply be part of that spiral down rule but in the moment that I realized if have accomplished a repair on a saw that was inoperative, I feel something like contentment. I suspect that the phenomenon I am describing, you might relate to, Bruce, not the chainsaw itself but perhaps realizing you have captured a moment you sought on ‘film’ or finally found your way to your focus and subject for a challenging blog entry. Contentment seems to me to be a possible outcome of how we occupy life and of course how life occupies us! I have garbled on about the experience of arriving to see the dawn come up over the mountains here in BC. There is no guarantee of contentment in it but it happens sometimes. Perhaps human contentment is an ‘accident’, a sometimes welcome collision of experience?

  6. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    It is easy to tell the “contented” from others who are “not.” If you are working to change things, you are not content to just let them be. (There are a lot of people who talk about their discontent, but do nothing, hence are quite content with whatever situation it is they are unwilling to get off of the couch and work for.)

    Your blog shows me a hard working change agent who is trying to help people deal with evangelistic Christianity. You sir, are by definition … not content.

    And I am grateful for it.

    PS Those who let their discontent overwhelm them or make themselves sick over it are not to be emulated.

  7. Avatar
    Bob Tucker

    I like the phrase ‘divine discontent’ (alliterative; without assuming a supernatural touch).
    My 29th year in a church led into retirement. I looked at the year ahead’s calendar, and I did not have one new program/effort ahead. I retired. However, during the years, I also looked on each sermon as pulling me into a new area of reading/research and thought (topical and not biblical preaching). Without that I would have left the ministry years before.
    Postings at midnight gave me a marker for each day’s emails. 10:00 am does not. Just a comment, not a complaint.

  8. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    In my opinion, the appropriateness of contentment is situational. If my basic needs for shelter, food, water, health, social-connectedness, etc., are met, then being content with those things is appropriate. If I see others whose needs aren’t met, and I am content to do nothing, that is inappropriate contentment. Lack of contentment is also a major driver in research and development, in creation of music, art, film, and literature. Virtually every creation or invention was the result of someone not being content with status quo. Of course, one must approach contentment or discontent rationally and realistically. I know there are things I am capable of improving, but I need to accept that there are some things out of my control.

  9. Avatar
    Melissa A Montana

    After years of family abuse, drama, and just pure hell, I am definitely seeking contentment. Not all the time, but I need peace. We all respond to adversity in our own way, so you do whatever works for you, Bruce.
    Your counselor sounds a lot like my mom. No matter how bad things were, she always came out with “You should be thankful for…” or “At least it isn’t…” or my favorite “Count your blessings.”
    Never complain, just accept all the crap life throws at you with a big smile. I don’t believe that. If he is making you uncomfortable, it might be time for a change. Sounds like he’s trying to nudge you out of therapy before you are ready to leave. Some of them don’t understand dealing with a chronic illness is a lifetime problem, and we will always need that support system.

  10. Avatar
    Marja

    Perhaps the problem is not personal psychology but national culture.

    There is an incredibly strong cultural emphasis in the US on the importance of being contented or happy (the more rigorous version) as a normal, desirable, even required state of being. If you aren’t already there, that should be your goal. If you don’t reach that goal, something is wrong with you. But that’s just very American. It’s literally pounded into us by almost every aspect of our culture from advertising to psychology, fundamental Christianity to new-age Buddhism, classrooms to the dinner table. There are other people in the world who think that’s just weird, unrealistic, dishonest and coercive. Whole countries of them, like the French.

    The French think contentment is essentially marketing hype and anyone claiming it with a reliable stream of cup-half-full attitudes is either thoughtless, delusional or dishonest about life. Complaining is seen as necessary venting and bonding over the true crappiness of reality. Don’t believe me? See the video by blogger Not Even French entitled “Why Do The French Complain So Much?” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGqhg5DHq7A — the comments by viewers are also worth a read. It’s a really interesting cultural difference that highlights for me how pervasive and unexamined our attitudes are about contentment and happiness.

    So, Bruce, the problem is not you. The problem is that you live in northwest Ohio, not Paris. No self-respecting Parisian would do anything else but complain about those burnt pizzas and the mediocre service for WEEKS with choice words and dismissive huffing. You go for it. Don’t let modern psychology reduce national cultural biases to a personal flaw. Seriously.

  11. Avatar
    Brunetto Latini

    I tore my ACL this summer after falling from a ladder. I’m still waling, so I’m happy about that. I have OCD, too. My difficulties, I know, are mild compared to what I’ve read of your experiences. Still, they are my difficulties, so they bother me.

    The other night whole walking our dogs with my partner, it struck me that I’m happy. My dog makes me happy. My partner makes me happy. There’s nothing I require to become happy. I think that’s contentment.

  12. Avatar
    Brunetto Latini

    Goodness, so many typos. I hate my smartphone. I meant, “I’m still walking.” And “while”, not “whole”.

  13. Avatar
    Linda File

    Thank you, Bruce. Really helpful. Thanks for saying what so many of us feel. I will also take life with restlessness now over any of the falseness I lived for decades in Christianity.

  14. Avatar
    dale m.

    Be content in death only. While alive, play with the matches and see how big a fire U can ignite. Your scorch marks will be all that’s left when you leave. People will point to them and say … “Boy! Did that guy ever light a bonfire in America! I can still feel the heat from those embers!”

  15. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    Hard for me to be content while I watch racist, bigoted people make serious decisions that impact on my fellow men/women. Although I can’t hold onto the discontent every minute of the day, or it would kill me.

    Now, I’m definitely more at peace with the universe when I am doing what I feel like I should do. My health holds me back, and fighting against doesn’t make for contented moments. But on better days, when my pain is lower and my mind is clearer, and I can take care of my family and enjoy my music, then I approach contentment.

  16. Avatar
    angiep

    Sorry, but the therapist’s advice is bunk!! Isn’t that basically saying, “Your problem is you’re not happy”? Contentment is for cows standing around grazing on grass. It’s human nature to want more in life (not necessarily material things). Sure, we yearn and strive for inner peace, but contentment implies you passively accept whatever condition you find yourself in and have no interest in making changes. My mom has always used that word and I’ve consistently found it unsatisfactory. I don’t think I’d ever describe myself as content, but that is not the same as unhappy.

  17. Avatar
    Grammar Gramma

    Dylan Thomas spoke to this very subject:
    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Don’t look for contentment, Bruce. Rage against all the injustices out there. Keep writing. Keep giving until the light dies.

  18. Avatar
    davey crockett

    The first thought that struck me in this discussion is the definition of contentment and the state of being that it is used in. I see several here in these blogs. For example, does one have to stay in their present condition forever or is change/dreaming allowed. The verses quoted imply to me a ‘in the moment or very near future scenario’. It does not say ‘until the end of your days’. But they do seem to be talking about what is going on within oneself in your personal world. Perhaps seeking contentment is a way to avoid lashing out at oneself and those near you and causing pain for things you did or did not do and the things you do or do not have. Bruce, you have quite a bit of contentment. You do not compare yourself to others – you care quite deeply in helping others, you care about sharing and being honest and open – you are not lost in acquiring things. I think the recent things that have hit you and Polly have given you a bad shaking and maybe this has helped form some of the things you are feeling. It is hard to work thru some of these very scary and sometimes unchangeable things.
    As for your counselor, did anyone notice all the judging going on here?? I do not agree with his thoughts either, but Bruce did you ask him for clarification on how he connects your feelings on over cooked pizza and mediocre waitressing with a lack of contentment?? I think you should have challenged him here and maybe felt better about the situation. The only way I can see it indicative is if you did your opinion just to get a discount. And I seriously doubt you did it for that.

  19. Avatar
    TLC

    The problem with being “content in all things” is that it makes people complacent and compliant — which is what most fundagelical pastors want. Usually, people don’t make changes they need to make until they’re angry, upset, challenged, injured or unhealthy. Remaining “content” in those situations usually means you’re ignoring warning signs that something needs to be different!

  20. Avatar
    Brunetto Latini

    I think Paul was talking about circumstances beyond his control when he talked about contentment in all things. I think it’s a healthy attitude to cultivate. The alternative is constant agitation. That may sound noble in a poem, but it’s a recipe for suffering in real life.

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