We’re not supposed to be content. We’re told that what we really should be is busy, productive, and eager to buy the next life-changing device offered half price on Black Friday. The busier the better as we keep pushing forward, improving our station in life, and not letting anybody stand in the way of our dreams. No room in all that for talk of contentment. We’re well entrenched in the habit of waiting for something else to happen before we can settle in and enjoy life – before we can let ourselves be content. Even after we cross the finish line for a big goal, it doesn’t take long to realise that we’re still not content. So we try again, looking for another finish line to aim for, pushing ourselves to the limit to achieve it, and then finding out that it doesn’t satisfy us, either. The cycle continues, and we’re not the only ones caught in it: even the massively successful rich and famous seem to live in the same spiral of goals, achievements, and discontent. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if we are successful or not, the underlying discontent with the reality of our lives is there either way. Failure is devastating. Success is empty. Is contentment even possible?
If you want to take a picture of a big impressive fire
If you want to post it up online and likes are your desire
Be sure to take your photo when the fire’s just been lit
When flames are leaping up so high it’s sure to be a hit
But then, if warming up your hands or cooking are your goals
You’ll have to wait and let the fire burn down to its coals
For epic Insta-pictures and 1,000 Facebook likes
Won’t be enough to warm you up on dark and stormy nights
Sometimes the unimpressive things are better than the show
Sometimes the things you wait for are the best things you can know
This week our family boarded a plane to head home to Ireland after some weeks in America. The airports along the way were full of holiday-makers going this way or that, some just setting out, others returning sporting deeper tans and new sunglasses. Eventually, whenever they all get to wherever it is they call home, they’ll be met by a welcome party of work, school, and responsibilities that have been patiently awaiting them. As the tan lines fade and sunglasses collect dust, the desktop background picture of big smiles in the sand may seem increasingly like a taunt. Or maybe like an impossible invitation: “If only I could live there all the time, I would always be that happy!” The invitation seems to be proven more and more with every holiday.
After attending the funeral of an extended family member this week, I was once again reminded of the short span of my own life. The funeral was more than a recognition of the reality of death, though, and more than a celebration of a life well lived: it was also a celebration of a sure hope beyond the grave. As the apostle Paul said: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I found a little graveyard
The grass grown up so high
On beds of now-forgotten folk
Whose names are scrubbed by Time
A few more days
A few more breaths
And I will join them here
And grass will grow
And time erase –
My name will disappear
But if your grandkids find me there
There’s no need for dismay
My Saviour broke the power of death
And I’ll be Home to stay
If you believe, you can achieve.
Evidently, if you believe hard enough and long enough, you can even fly – that’s what I heard on the radio. Metaphorically, this is encouraging. Practically, it’s still annoyingly impossible, no matter how strongly I imagine myself butterflying above the ground. The kind of advice that tells us we can be anything we want to be is meant to be inspiring, to encourage us to try difficult things, and help us push through to reach our goals even when it’s hard. The slogans sound so great and fit so well in songs and movies and books and memes and posters that it’s easy to overlook that one pesky little drawback of how none of them are true.
The elephants at Belfast Zoo were rocking. As soon as we turned the corner and saw them, we had to laugh. They looked like they were grooving to their favourite tunes on invisible headphones, and we started trying to figure out what song could make elephants dance like that. The game stopped, though, when we read the sign: these elephants had been rescued from captivity and hard labour. They had spent years working in logging camps and circuses, and had gotten used to being chained up whenever they were not working. The rocking had nothing to do with dance music: It was a coping mechanism, because for much of their lives, they couldn’t do anything else.
“Sorry for your troubles”, they said, one by one, to the smiling lady who offered each one of them a cup of tea. But through her smile, her words were desperate: “To lose one son was bad enough, but at least we knew that was an accident…”
The second son was lying in the front room, pale and cold. The coffin was padded, unlike the rocks where he’d been found at the bottom of a cliff. There was no note. No reason. No signs and signals, even after every memory of every person was turned over in the search. There was just this pale face in the front room, this politely smiling mother, and these cups of tea. Continue reading A Hand In The Dark