20 November 2017

Contentment vs. Complacency: A Quandary


This is another "Versus" post, where I like to give my take on a difficult question, or explain the difference between disparate notions that are often wrongly conflated. This one, though, is going to be quite different. I've labeled it "A Quandary", because this time, the truth is: I don't know the answer. I sense that these two things -- Contentment and Complacency -- are different, but I'm still in the process of discovering wherein the nature of that difference lies.

Here's my trouble: Sometimes, when I'm telling someone about a problem, idea, or desire I have, they tell me that I shouldn't concern myself with it, that instead, I should just be content. If they're a person of faith, they will sometimes throw in for good measure: "God will give you better circumstances once you learn to be content with the ones you have."

I'm never sure exactly how to respond to this. Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us (or even hint) that life changes hinge on our feelings about them, or that we are in our present situation because we care about it too much.

I can't simply make myself not care about something. That's not a Christian idea anyway, that's Buddhist non-attachment philosophy. Besides, it backfires: Trying not to care about something makes me care about it more. It's like if I say, "Don't think about pandas", what's the first thing you thought of? Probably pandas. Trying not to think about something doesn't work very well, and trying not to care is even worse.

Do they really mean that I'm supposed to settle for less, and not work toward positive change in the area in question? Maybe not, but there's nothing in what they're actually saying that would prevent me from arriving at that conclusion.

Don't all good changes in the human life begin, in some way, with a lack of acceptance of the status quo? What would the world today look like, for instance...

If Christopher Columbus had been content to stay in Spain, or the American settlers had been content to stay in England?

If John Wycliffe and William Tyndale had been content to keep reading the Bible in Latin?

If Harriet Tubman had been content to remain a slave?

If Amy Carmichael and Mother Teresa had been content to stay in their respective homelands instead of going to India?

If Thomas Edison had been content to keep using candles?

Those are just a few scenarios off the top of my head, but there are many, many more. My own daily existence would be much poorer if the inventors of computers, air conditioners, airplanes, and antibiotics had all been "content" with what they had. If they had not wanted anything more than what was available to them in their time.

Some people differentiate the two by saying that complacency is just laziness, while being content means that you're happy with where you are. I don't see these as mutually exclusive, though. Couldn't you be happy with your laziness? I know some who are.

In fact, I think this is more of a possibility than most of us would like to admit. As harsh as it sounds, almost everyone I know personally who describes him/herself as content, is really just not particularly ambitious and/or has no definite goals in life. Mundaneness doesn't bother them. They're perfectly satisfied with their day in, day out routine, and they don't want anything more. If this works for them, then more power to them. Not everyone has a strong drive for change, and that is okay. But this lack of drive is a personality trait, and it irritates me that they try to pass it off as a virtue.

My other issue with the contentment rhetoric is that your life can pass you by while you're just "being content." Before you know it, you're at the end of a decade or even at the end of your life, and you don't have much to show for it. Contentment and getting out of your comfort zone don't often go hand in hand, but the latter is necessary for growth, for achievement, for positive change.

All of which are good things, which is why, I'm thinking, they can't be fundamentally at odds with God's idea of what it means to be content. But I can't say for sure that I know what that is, exactly.

The Apostle Paul said, "I have learned to be content in whatever state I am." (Boy, I wish I could say the same. I never did learn how to be content in the state of South Carolina. Shame on me. But Paul also said that he wished everyone would remain unmarried like he was, and I obviously failed on that account as well. So maybe he was only speaking for himself.) He was content no matter what happened, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who accomplished more than he did. Contentment for him was most certainly not complacency.

If I ever find the answer to this problem, I will be sure to post an update. For now, though, it's mid-afternoon, I'm sleepy, and my coffee cup is empty. This is a state of affairs with which I am decidedly not content, so I'm going to go do something about it. Au revoir for now...

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