The Goal of a Lesser Life

From my earliest childhood, I always heard the future spoken of in superlatives: the best, the best possible, etc. There was an unspoken assumption that each human being was uniquely suited to something and that if they found that unique thing and worked at it, they could become the best at something. Some of my early successes revolved around the piano. With a bit of work, I was able to excel beyond my older brother (five years my senior). I kept up with other students of my teacher, though I noticed that I was not always on top. And then, I started Junior High.

There, in my homeroom, was a Jewish kid (the first I had ever met). Sometime during the year, he had the opportunity to play the piano for us. We were thirteen, and this scrawny guy sat down and ripped out a Rachmaninov prelude with ease. I had never seen (for real) anyone play like that. I also knew that I would never play like that. Perhaps he had found his unique thing.

As my world continued towards adulthood, and widened its scope of contacts, I learned repeatedly, that I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Though I had a bit of talent at one thing and another, I was pretty much above average, at best. The illusion of “uniquely suited” turned out to be a pep talk, but not the truth of our existence.

We live in the culture of the pep-talk, whether it is directed towards us or not. Watching the next amazing teen on “America’s Got Talent” can be astounding entertainment, but also a reminder that most of us are not like that. Our mediocrity would make bad TV. Excellence is largely a myth and a painful one for many. It is also a distraction from what is truly excellent about everyone and everything.

The modern cult of excellence is largely defined by our consumer economy. Excellence sells. There is always a message that if we found our unique thing it would have a unique place in the market. We would be productive, people would pay for it, like us, and we would be happy. This is largely untrue. Most people discover that no matter their gift or talent, that thing they do, over and over, is work. Sometimes we like our work, and sometimes we don’t. A Picasso can finish a painting and consider it garbage, even discarding it. A Picasso in the trash!

While excellence is great and beauty is a cause for wonder, we do not rightly live as part of a marketing strategy. Within the market, we are almost all reduced to audience, ticket-buyers, shills for the card-sharps. It is not a wise way to live a life.

I have imagined a normal day in a life, filmed in high-definition, carefully edited and produced with a breathless narration by Sir David Attenborough. As amusing as it might sound, the things that make up the content of The Blue Planet and other such creations are as mundane as a normal day in the life of an octopus. However, the film work manages to pay attention in patient wonder at what would normally pass unnoticed.

Our lives are driven by false assumptions in which we become our own greatest disappointments, all the while wondering at the excellence of others. In truth, our lives lack true wonder. We do not attend to the things that are most directly at hand. That which is uniquely proper to each of us is not our marketable skill – it is our very existence! That we do not rightly see our own existence means that we fail to rightly see the existence of others. We become like a movie audience in which all of the real people sit in the dark, unaware of one another, with the digital images dancing on the screen as the center of our short-term world.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, in his famous 55 maxims, mentions several times the need “to be small,” or, words to that effect. I would modify that somewhat by saying, “Learn to be content.” In our drive for excellence or constant improvement, we never learn the skills of being content with anything. I have known people who were very set on a career ladder and had no idea what to do when they reached the top. They learned everything other than how to live.

St. Paul uses the term contentment as a normative goal of the spiritual life:

Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Tim. 6:5-10)

Contentment (αὐταρκεία) has the meaning “having a sufficiency within yourself.” Elsewhere, St. Paul speaks of his own experience:

…for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Phil. 4:11-12)

Contentment allows us to remain attentive to where we are (and who we are). The drive of our culture always distracts us and focuses our attention to where we are not and to where we want to be. It creates an anxiety and makes our present life a distraction. The present is a marvelous place. It is also the place of the heart.

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. St. Macarius (H.43.7)

With that, we should be content.

45 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father. I have struggled with my mediocrity and with contentment for a long time now, and anxiety is my middle name. It’s one of those perspectives that’s much easier grasped than applied.
    Am I right that it also applies to the spiritual life, that we can strive to spiritually excel, all the while forgetting to be present, content and human?

  2. Good Morning! I like what you are saying. I became a super Host for My air bnb. I have no idea how that happened. I wasn’t trying I was struggling. I am retired with only a 1,000.00 a month on social security. My x left me for another after 40 years of marriage. There’s more to the story. I do photography and I am more of an artist. I believe God gives us talents to use. We are all different souls with stories. I’m just sharing and would like to hear your thoughts.

  3. Thank you for this. Perfect for me and excellent for giving good words to children (18 and 19) who are just setting out in the world on their own two feet . Whether any of us listen is another matter!
    I remind myself frequently of Fr Thomas’s words: be ordinary. None of us are very comfortable with that, are we?

  4. François,

    The great hidden truth surrounding “excellence” versus “mediocrity” (which is not mentioned in this article) is that it’s about shame. We are not content because we are ashamed of our existence (in so many ways). Until and unless we address that underlying condition, we will not find proper contentment. The nature of our present culture is that it uses shame to manage its members – and does so in many hidden ways. It is as subtle as feeling “out-of-style” to various needs to consume and shop our way up the consumption ladder.

    Each week in the Wall Street Journal, there’s a section called, “Mansion.” It features homes of the rich. It is not an example of people doing good things with what they have, but of a level of over-consumption that is as ridiculous as it is decadent. The New York Times has a constant flow of features (fashion, lifestyle, etc.) that celebrates the decadence of various cultural elites.

    These “success stories” all serve to point out that our culture has come loose from its moorings and is floating in a raging sea of madness. In such a setting, the decision to live a human life of being present and content is an act of radical rebellion.

    In the spiritual life – what we should strive for is to cultivate love for God and neighbor. We pray in order to have communion with Christ. We serve and love others in order to have communion with Christ in them. Everything else is mostly a silly distraction.

    This week I have failed (daily) in so many ways (numberless). Nevertheless, I will stand at the altar tomorrow, and hold the Body of Christ in my sin-stained hands – a Gift more precious than the whole of the world. I will eat Him. I will dwell in Him and He in me. My failures will disappear, swallowed in the infinite goodness of His life-giving gift.

    Eating Him, I will be content.

  5. The Internet has exacerbated both the awareness of this truth and its resulting disappointment. As just one anecdotal example, I see so many stories of social “influencers” who end their very young existences. Few activities can be as unfulfilling for the young as lives spent online, where worthless statistics briefly sustain the illusion of significance, while the young person neglects tending the garden of a real and present life.

    Also, I was reading the story of Samson this morning and thought about it in terms of your post, Fr. Stephen.

    Here was a man who lived a “greater” life such that he is remembered thousands of years later. He was superlative in the way you describe: the strongest man of his time, so much so that he was confident that his strength could not fail him and would overcome every foe and obstacle. Moreover, multiple verses describe how the Spirit of the Lord acted through him.

    Thus, he was both a unique physical specimen and a man consecrated from before birth with unique spiritual gifts. Yet can we say he was happy or contented? Hardly. He seems consumed by his passions (lust and anger, mostly). Only in death did he finally realize the source of what made him exceptional.

  6. Fr. Stephen,
    I just sent your article to my grandson who only last month graduated from college.
    The pressures on our youth to succeed, to find their “dream” job, to develop their full potential, to grab the “American Dream,” are tremendous, and I’m sure crush many.
    I’d like to have read this when I first finished college! Hoping my grandson will…and profit from your words. It is so illusory to live in the future because it does rob us of contentment and joy in the present, the only time we have in which to know God and love others.
    Father, I think the documentary by Attenborough is the Green Planet.

  7. ‘We become like a movie audience in which all of the real people sit in the dark, unaware of one another, with the digital images dancing on the screen as the center of our short-term world.’ Exactly.

  8. I am learning, often with pain and seeming debasement that “spiritual excellence” looks like The Cross. I began my official spiritual life on a path of “spiritual attainment” even though vows of humility and obedience were involved–repentance not so much.
    It was not all fake — I and many friends ended up in the Orthodox Church. By grace and mercy. Solely. An outright gift of God. One special friend of those days lives a life of The Cross quite literally in many ways.
    Yet, don’t we all? If we will.

  9. I attended a very charismatic Bible school in my early 20’s. There was regular messaging in the form of banners, guest speakers and dynamic worship services (complete with flashing lights and electric guitars) that all conveyed what we were all ‘called’ to: “World changers!”, “Speak truth to power!”, “Travel the world and save the unreached!”.
    That was 25 years ago, I’ve been Orthodox for 9 years now and yet it still haunts me. I recognize it now as an untruth, but it’s impact was deep. I have friends from that time in my life who have continued to be crushed under the weight of those unrealistic expectation.

    When I first became Orthodox it translated itself into dreams of being a monk, perhaps on Mt. Athos where I would undoubtedly attain to ceaseless prayer in short order. God had different plans. I’m married now (something I imagined I’d never do) and have 4 children (another thing I’d never imagined). I work a job ‘in the world’, pay bills, struggle to get my kids dressed, fed and to the various places they need to be. l endeavor to love my wife, be a good husband and father – failing in all to various degrees but continuing on.
    It’s not the life I imagined, not by a long shot. But I’ve come to recognize that it’s the life I need. I’m learning to be content with it and thanking God that He’s given me more than enough: far more than I deserve.

  10. This is off topic, Father. Please delete if needed.
    My mother could not distinguish between blue and green. My siblings and I would sometimes get a chuckle over this. The failure to distinguish between these colors is called Tritanomaly.
    Since our planet is mainly blue and green when seen from space, I guess it is a hmm. But for artists it’s important…otherwise we might have Vermeer’s “Woman in Green!” 🙂

  11. Timely for me, Father. I turn 60 next month, a kind of milestone. I’ll be too old to have any pretensions to youth, though I have much yet to do. I’ve done some awfully interesting, and sometimes important, things over the decades. Nothing is worth hanging too much value on, frankly. I’ve done, and will do, the best I could with what I had and have. I have yet to perfectly grasp Christ, and so perhaps He’ll give me some more time.

    I hope to have 4 of my five children at my table, along with my bride, and my 5th, working out-of-state, dialed in to a conference call on that day. My first present will be to read this post to them. My greatest effort for the world, my family, can prayerfully be a blessing too. They already are. However, keeping perspective is a life-long effort. A good trajectory can save a lot of wandering as we reach to the goal of it all.

    It’s hard to rate writers, Father, but I think you have actually found your thing. And you’re quite good at it! I’ve never read a word from ANYone at a birthday dinner for me…as a present to myself. I’ll bet your parishioners were glad to have you as a priest, too

    Right on. Write on.

  12. Thank you for this beautiful essay + your first comment. I’d love to forward it to my 17 year old son but I know it will make no impact. It’s written for us older folks who already discovered its content in some way. My son’s heart is still receptive but he faces a lot of pressure from older siblings and other close ones that vacationing in Dubai and driving a Ferrari is the ultimate in life. Since I’m out of his life, unfortunately, I’m pretty desperate about those influences nearer to him. Our youth needs your voice loud and clear.

  13. This mentality that bigger is better, and to shoot higher for its own sake can also be a temptation in the Orthodox Church. It is possible to have an impressively large congregation that is more bound by ethnicity than Jesus Christ. It is possible to try to gain or keep members by yielding to secular mores and values. It is possible to award only those that are well educated, big donors, or a committee chairperson with 10 organizations. But in our midst are the handicapped, the poor, the divorced, the downtrodden. The more humble life, and the more “marginal” in the church can be overlooked. I just finished a book for me which might be life changing, in line with this post, “Blessed are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They are Missing Something.” As an introvert, I have a chronic sense of not being “enough,” in a world of extroverts, but I know that in my quiet way, I too am part of the kingdom of God and have my place. I think of Mother Theresa who said, “We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

  14. A good therapist I once worked with said, “We are all ordinary.” Once I came to realize this truth, I found myself to be more content…

  15. Hello Father Stephen Freeman,

    Your words remind me of the psychology of mindfulness, of being present and focusing on here. I was reading through the Book of Job, where God answers man and talks about nature, and the commentary said that even where there is seemingly no visible purpose (like deserts without people), God cares for His creation, and we need to look in different areas we haven’t before to see this. He even provides food for the raven, a bird most people find revolting.

    But it’s your words “We become like a movie audience in which all of the real people sit in the dark, unaware of one another, with the digital images dancing on the screen as the center of our short-term world.” that remind me of Plato’s Cave. Our culture is based on competition and assertion, which may have someone ultimately be wrong, but in the meanwhile they are the trend setters since that’s what they tell others, and others listen. Anxiety can be cured by asserting your own way over that of others, or removing yourself from their influences. The Wall Street Journal can only influence people if we see it as an authority. Christ is our rock and if we build upon Him, we cannot be moved when the earthquake of societal collapse comes.

    Wonderful as always!

    Joseph

  16. Father, bless. Though you don’t know me I have a mystical relationship with you, in that you reach out to me through this blog which pops up on my email and every single time it is with a message that is a direct response to whatever turmoil I am experiencing. How you hit the nail on the head with this one. I grew up in a family in which artistic excellence and success was the measure of our worth. The shame of falling short is indeed deep-rooted and poisonous, and though I am now your age and my family is mostly gone, my modest accomplishments only serve to taunt me. My life certainly has been driven by false assumptions and I am my own greatest disappointment. Thank God I have found Orthodoxy, but now I fear that I am failing at that too, as I have a life long habit of dismissiveness and cynicism. God grant me a sliver of the grace of your faith, to be content and have the clarity to see the reality beyond the digital images dancing on the screen.

  17. One thing I have learned in life is there is a huge difference between who and what. Many people identify themselves by what they do. Their self worth and self esteem sprout from what they do for a living. In your example of a person focused on climbing the ladder of success and having reached the top are at a loss on how to deal with their success. This is because they never stopped to find out who they are. I like to ask people who they are and mostly I get what answers such as “I am a truck driver” or “I am an executive” or any other job title. I believe that their failure to learn who they are is the key to dissatisfaction in life. Our uniqueness is in who we are, not what we do. If one knows themselves as a child of God it is sufficient for being content with our life as this is what really matters.

  18. Michael, The way I see it is that the present moment is, by God’s grace, what it is, and I don’t feel a compelling need to control, or, if you like, manage it, and I can be thankful for it. My soul, thus, is at peace. I find contentment/satisfaction a good descriptor for that, as opposed, perhaps, to self-satisfaction, which is an entirely different thing, but perhaps a bit difficult to distinguish from simple satisfaction. Maybe that helps?
    Marjorie

  19. Fr, I have spent an entire lifetime in the corporate world and with all the misguided steps that are simply inculcated into every aspect of that life. .Any kind of detachment (as you say, contentment) is not valued and is seen primarily as a deficiency.

    One thing that is not bred there is mental health. In its place what is provided is division, juxtaposition from one to the other, producing isolation and a built in insufferable zero sum game. Most choose to check out of the inhumanity in the ways that are available to them. Everything comes at its costs.

  20. Michael, The way I see it is that the present moment is, by God’s grace, what it is, and I don’t feel a compelling need to control, or, if you like, manage it, and I can be thankful for it. My soul, thus, is at peace. I find contentment/satisfaction a good descriptor for that, as opposed, perhaps, to self-satisfaction, which is an entirely different thing, but perhaps a bit difficult to distinguish from simple satisfaction. Maybe that helps?
    Marjorie

  21. Marjorie, I simply see the same reality you see but it appears to me as an active joy that is totally unmanageable by my puny will. Lots of activity and for lack of a better word-change. Not “changing the world” or any other such nonsense but positive changes in my heart. Some of which I have been working for a long time and failing. Just given by the Grace of God. Contentment does not have that panoply of meaning for me. Patience, obedience, perhaps but not contentment. Not arguing because maybe I just ain’t there yet. May God’s peace and joy be with you in all things.

    Thank you.

  22. Marjorie another observation: When I was young Carnation Milk had as one of their advertising slogans “Milk from contented cows.” Even as a young man I thought that a bit wierd. Them in the 1980’s Prairie Home Companion had ad one of its fake adds from Lake Woebegone Dairy: “Our cows are NOT contented. They are always striving to do better.”

    Like I said,, I am probably not there yet.

    Thank you. The conversation is delightful. At least to me.

  23. Ok I couldn’t resist looking it up. What I found in Wikipedia—Blue Planet by David Attenborough

    Never heard of it until this article. But the lesson of this article is the heart and where or rather from whom we obtain our contentment. Our Lord, Jesus Christ is the bread and water of our life.

    I agree that our shame, the burning fires in our hearts stoked by this culture, drive us to attain, to distract. —A deathly acquisitiveness.

    May God grant us with His grace.

  24. Michael,
    Oh I agree about the joy. Makes me want to dance sometimes, which at my age (84) is not always advisable!
    Marjorie

  25. Hi Dee,
    I guess the Blue Planet was released in 2001 and the Green Plant in 2022. My wife and I just watched the new one this week on PBS…wonderful new technology in the filming. Marjorie, your comment made me laugh!

  26. Marjorie, I am only 74 and I can’t physically dance any more or I would end up in ER. But, I can still dance in my heart.

  27. This post reminded me of “The Grace of Incorruption”, where it was mentioned that “Donald Sheehan spoke often of ‘downward mobility,’ usually with some amusement, as a goal to be sought.” I imagine we are talking about the same kind of thing here.

  28. Our lives are driven by false assumptions in which we become our own greatest disappointments, all the while wondering at the excellence of others. In truth, our lives lack true wonder. We do not attend to the things that are most directly at hand. That which is uniquely proper to each of us is not our marketable skill – it is our very existence! That we do not rightly see our own existence means that we fail to rightly see the existence of others. We become like a movie audience in which all of the real people sit in the dark, unaware of one another, with the digital images dancing on the screen as the center of our short-term world.

    Thank you, thank you Father Stephen – and all…such a good word and words that soothe my weary 64 year old heart. May God help us see, forgive and love ourselves and each other as He does us. Lord have mercy

  29. Gosh, Fr. Who says you are no sharp knife in the drawer …?
    You, St Paul, and St Macarius affirmed me and nourished me gracefully regarding The Goal of a Lesser Life. Thank you!

  30. …for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Phil. 4:11-12)

    This is, indeed, the great gift the faith has given me. Thanks be to God. I came to him laboring under heavy burdens and He has, as promised given me rest. (Matt, 11.28)

  31. Mark,
    Well, it depends on which drawer you’re in. I’ve been in a variety of such over the years. In some of them, I felt like a dull butter-knife. The blog seems to suit me modest abilities.

  32. Father, is embracing with humility one’s relative sharpness a part of what you mean by contentment? For some reason, I am having trouble with that word although the quote above from Philippians helps. A peaceful even joyous acceptance of whatever God sends?

  33. In my mind, I juxtapose this with the wonderful movie, A Hidden Life. To be content is not necessarily a peaceful condition, in the sense of tribulation. Glory to God that we may have peace anyway!

  34. Byron,
    Good example. Christ Himself is our true contentment. I point to very practical, real things (versus ideology, or the make-believe worlds of modernity). Christ is sacramentally present in reality (not unreality). Since God is real – make-believe is largely the story of His absence. I.e. it’s not true.

    I always cautioned people about their imaginations. We become anxiety and afraid primarily over things we imagine. Since grace is not imaginary, we discover that we cannot imagine it. So we almost always imagine things to be worse than they are – because we do not have grace within our imaginings.

    God is drawing towards Himself – towards the truth – towards the fullness of real existence. And there is contentment in that.

  35. “Since grace is not imaginary, we discover we cannot imagine it.” That is a wonderful statement.

  36. Father, I have seen much damage done by what the Bible, I think, calls vain imagination. I have hurt many people in the same manner. ..

    It seems that my many unrighteous judgments, reactions and even feeling hurt comes from that dark and scary place of my imagination. It can become a place of terror for those caught in it. The very opposite of contentment.

    As I continue to contemplate your eonderful words “Grace is not imaginary..” I am beginning understand a bit more what “contentment” means.

    Yet people who want to follow our Lord and His mercy are often accused of not living “in the real world”.

    It is quite a dichotomy I had not ever considered before.

    There is no dialectic that can harmonize the real and the imaginary.

    Yet my imaginings seem so real when I am caught up in them. Only Grace in all its forms and substance can free me.
    Repentance, forgiveness, mercy are each thoroughly and completely real.
    Each an expression of the Grace that streams from the Holy Trinity and each of the three persons.
    Thank you for your word.

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