Monday, October 08, 2007
Contentment (by Leslie)
(I apologize for the length of this post.)
In a book I’m reading, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, (by an old dead guy, Jeremiah Burroughs), he says that the secret key to being content as a Christian is to lower your desires so that they match your lot in life. In modern day terms, if you are a person who appreciates things made of great quality but have a very limited income, you must become a person, at least for a time, who does not notice quality and does not let yourself care. Otherwise you will not be able to be content with your Wal-mart sneakers. You will keep noticing how much more spongy those Nike sneakers feel. Or if you are wont to appreciate finely crafted leather furniture and you have a small income, you must become a garage-sale, second-hand kind of person who likes that kind of stuff. You must become a person who likes the humble means God has placed you in. It is more than just sighing and saying fine, I’ll shop at Goodwill. It is becoming a Goodwill type of person. It is becoming a person who is happy to make use of other peoples cast-offs. Otherwise, you will never be content.
I have been thinking about this a lot but in relation to the stages of life that a woman goes through. Women’s lives seem to have more fluctuations than men’s. We have really intense, exhausting years when there are many toddlers and babies at once. But then they grow and things slow down, and then things get intense again if more babies come. Right after a baby is born, nearly every moment of every day and night is spent caring for that baby. Men might have intense work schedules at time, but never 24 hours. So there is something to be said for learning to be content in the different stages where God places us.
I have made my peace with not becoming too involved in lots of activities this year, like I was able to do when we only had three kids. But I have a harder time learning to be content with what I am able to accomplish all day. One of the difficult things about caring for a baby and a toddler can be that even though you have spent all day attending to their needs, you may have nothing to show for it. It’s not like when you accomplish a home improvement project like painting a room. After working for 8 hours you can stand back and say, “Look at what I did. That was so worth it because now we can enjoy this room for years to come.” Instead, after 8 hours you aren’t sure what you did, you just know you did the next thing, changed the next diaper, fed, bathed, nursed, played. Sometimes, it may not only look like you didn’t do anything, it looks worse. So here’s where the contentment factor comes in for me. I must learn to be happy even when I don’t have anything tangible to show for my work in this stage of life. I must learn to be content with unfinished projects. In any other stage of life, I think it would be a sin to just put off projects inevitably. Normally, setting goals and accomplishing them and being diligent is what God requires. But in this stage, that is my road to discontentment. If I say, this week I want to paint all the trim and the doors, hang the pictures in the kids room, organize all the closets, and have the house perfectly clean at all times, I’m just setting myself up for frustration. I know because I’ve tried it. Have you ever tried painting with a one-year-old?—don’t.
So here’s how I am trying to take Burrough’s advice. For now, while I have a small baby and toddler, I have to become the type of person who doesn’t mind a fridge that’s not sparkling (yuk! I like my fridge clean and organized). Don’t worry, my house does get a thorough cleaning often, but right now it can’t stay clean for long. That’s a fact, but will I be content with that? Or will I stand in the kitchen with the broom in hand and sweep up the floor every time a kid walks in from outside (I’ve actually done that before). If there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to live up to my own expectations, then I must lower my expectations. I know that sounds painfully simple and trite, but for me to live it is profound. I also have expectations for myself which include playing with and spending time with the little ones. So if I were to pursue housework above everything else, if I become a slave to a home improvement checklist, I will be discontent that I was not able to devote enough time to the babies (they will be discontent too).
I feel like it may sound as if I’m advocating sloth: “Women of the world, let your housework go. Learn to be happy even though your dirty laundry pile is a mile high. Learn to love dirty bathrooms.” In some cases it is lack of diligence that leads to domestic disorder, and I am not advocating that. But there are other times when diligence just won’t get you far enough. You must be content with accomplishing less.
I have definitely learned this in the meal area. When we were first married, I made a fancy meal every night. We never ate things like grilled cheese. I was always trying new things and they were almost always gourmet. Ever since this baby has been born, I have been making the same very simple meals over and over: spaghetti, taco variations, black beans and rice variations (very cheap too), grilled cheese, and a breakfasty thing (waffles, french toast), frozen pizza, pesto pasta. I used to think that only lazy wives made their family that type of food. It turns out nobody complains and Chris even appreciates not having to try new recipes all the time. He likes having the same thing over and over. The day will come when I will have time to experiment in the kitchen again and make really special meals for my family again. But for now, everyone is content with spaghetti.
The cleaning thing is a little harder to figure out. Some things just have to be accomplished no matter what, like laundry. The kids have to have clean uniforms and socks, tights, etc, Chris has to have clean t-shirts for work, so I can’t cut corners on that at all. A large part of every day has to be devoted to laundry. Also, the house does need to be tidy so people can find things. But, I think the key to contentment here is that I need to be happy if it’s not tidy all the time. I need to be happy about us going around and picking everything up at 5:00 and having the house picked up then, rather than trying to keep it clean all day. Otherwise, I’m going to be discontent as I’m sitting there nursing Naomi and Abigail is emptying my Tupperware cabinet or pulling all her books off the shelves “I just cleaned up the living room!” God made little one-year-olds to love exploring and getting things out. She loves to pull clothes out of her drawers and try them on, she loves to try to put her own shoes on and carry them all over the house, she loves to carry anything all over the house and leave it. At the same time God made infants to need to be nursed for long periods of time during which it is impossible to clean up after the toddler.
I still want to keep my house as clean and as tidy as is possible in any given day. But I want to be content if what is possible is not as clean as it could be. It’s not just a resignation of, “I have to learn to deal with this.” It’s actually making yourself not care and not letting it bug you. That is the real difference. I never want to be a “messy person.” So what I want to know is, is there a way to be a person who doesn’t let temporary messes bug you without being a messy person. I guess a messy person is the one who actually does have the time and ability to clean but doesn’t care enough to do it. I guess what I am talking about is cleaning when you are able and being happy when you are not able.
This concept of lowering your desires to match your circumstances can be applied to so many categories of life. I got a Hanna Anderson catalog in the mail the other day (a maker of classic girls’ clothes ) and I threw it away before looking at it. It’s not that I may be tempted to buy something out of it, it’s more that it’s foolish to imagine myself a great appreciator of classic girls clothing when it is not in my means. I have to learn to become tacky. Wal-mart is our outfitter and you will not find any long, plaid smocked dresses in size 10 there. So, that means that we learn to like what is there. (What I don’t understand is why we have to pay more to buy classic clothing. If someone has the answer to that, please tell me.)
But here’s what it comes down to: every time I go to a store, I see women checking me out. Many of these women have children because they’ll see mine and say, “Oh, I have a 1-year-old too.” Whenever that happens, I am so thankful that I don’t have to work at Wal-mart, or anywhere else. I would never trade my time at home with my kids for better clothes, furniture, cars, or anything. It is not an art to learn to appreciate fine things. It is an art to learn to appreciate and be thankful for the lower things. It is an art to be grateful for whatever you can afford and not wish for more. I recommend reading the book!