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!


Robyn said...

Hi Les, I think this is a really wonderful post. I think I know how you feel, especially about the gourmet cooking and the spotlessly clean house, except obviously, at this point in my life, I can manage those types of work. However, I really have learned from you that, when the time comes, it is much more important to cultivate a certain attitude toward the care of children than to have a spotless house, and I hope you don't ever feel like I am making a statement by helping you tidy up. I really respect the ways you manage your house and give yourself up for your children and I have never considered your house a place of disorder. You are an excellent example to me and many other women of a sacrificial wife and mother. I love you, Leslie.



Laura said...

Leslie, until the end of the post I was under the assumption that Chris had written it, and I was wondering why he was talking about himself in third person. And why was he talking so much about classic girls’ clothes? Haha. This is a great post and a great reminder. You are a very graceful busy lady!!!

David Madeira said...

I just want to know what those little ankle-biters did to your house while you were typing all this out! :)

Leslie said...

Robyn, I would never think that you were making a statement by helping me tidy up! I just appreciate the help that you do so much. I'm always amazed at how much you always accomplish when you watch my kids: clean my house and always have something wonderful baked from scratch fresh out of the oven when I get home! Can't beat that! My friend Rachel and I were saying that we should write down the helpful things like that that people do for us after we have babies so we won't forget what we needed help with when our daughters have babies. Along the same lines, if you live nearby when you have your kids, I hope I can be such a help to you. I love you too!

Leslie said...

David, While I was reading these comments and commenting to Robyn, Abigail was standing next to me saying, "I'm poopy, change me." And I kept saying, "Just a second." Then after awhile she decide to just take her poopy diaper off and she brought it to me going: "EEEEw, Yuuuk." That got me off the computer pretty quick!

Chuck Thomas said...

You said: "I have to learn to become tacky. Wal-mart is our outfitter..."

"Tacky"...What an interesting word selection. That one word seems to suggest a lingering resentment in HAVING to SETTLE for Wal-mart instead of your preferred clasic clothes. Is "having to learn to become tacky" an indication of the necessary change in heart-attitude of Christian contentment?

Leslie said...

Hi Chuck

I don't know who you are but you made a good point. I think there are some people who do not have any aesthetic taste whatsoever and so buying cheap, tacky clothing is never an issue of contentment; they don't know the difference. I am not advocating that we try to become like that. I'm saying that if we are someone who imagines that we are more "refined" and we have "good taste" and so justify overspending, then we have to change and decide that it really doesn't matter for eternity, that we don't care, and it's not going to rob our joy.

I'm not advocating becoming an existentialist and calling in to question: "What is tacky and what is classic anyway and who's to say?" and all that. I really do believe there is objective truth even in the matters of aesthetics; I don't think it's just relative.

There is such a things as beautiful clothing (i.e. the pattern reflects the beauty of God's creation like little flowers, is well designed) and there is an objective reality called ugly clothing (poorly designed, trendy pattern on fabric that goes out of style next week like funky geometric shapes or pink camouflage). So my use of the word tacky is referring to an objective reality (i.e. trendy, hip, mini-Brittany Spears-esque, metro-sexual, urban apparel).

I think as Christians we can recognize the difference between beautiful quality objects and cheap, poorly designed ones, and yet at the same time learn to be happy with the cheap ones. It's not that we pretend there's no difference between the two. We learn to become happy while recognizing the inferiority of the object.

But you're right in that we shouldn't be using it as a hair shirt and constantly reminding ourselves of what a sacrifice it is to buy this "horrible, tacky" stuff. Because that wouldn't be becoming a tacky person. That would be staying a "refined" person who has to settle for tacky. And if that is what you meant, I agree with you.

I don't know if that even clarified anything or maybe I'm just repeating myself hopelessly. I'm still trying to get it all figured out.


Chuck Thomas said...


I can see that you are still trying to work this thing out. I appreciate your diligence and your desire to strive for Christian contentment. Hang in there, but don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t all sort out or execute as easily as “the old dead guy” would make it seem.

I think what struck me when I read your post the first time was the edginess of the word "tacky" and your “having to learn” to be that way. It left me with a sense of condescension on your part, whether that was your intent or not. And it occurred to me that condescension and Christian contentment might be at least a little bit at odds with one another. And that sense of condescension seemed like an indication that the necessary change in heart attitude had not met up with the intellectual realization that we should be content to live within our means.

As for who I am…I came across your site a few weeks ago when I saw Chris comment on another blog that was in the midst of a debate over Paedo vs. Credo baptism. I followed his comment back to the series of posts that he wrote on his conclusions about the validity and scriptural support for Paedobaptism. I found them to be well reasoned and well written. So much so, I included your site in my “favorites” and check it from time to time to see what else you guys are up to, or more specifically what is on your minds. I know it seems a little creepy that just anybody can peek in on you like that, but that’s the blogoshpere. I live in the Texas Hill Country with my wife and a herd of alpaca. I used to be a marketing executive, retired early from the corporate world and, well the rest of my story is way too long for here. Our kids are grown, educated, and on their own. Our daughter just got married this past weekend, so when I see the pictures of your family on your site, it makes my heart go out to Chris, who will someday give your daughters away. There is NO way to describe the feeling of doing that until you are actually doing it. Wow!

You guys are a beautiful bunch.


Leslie said...

Hi Chuck,
We don't mind at all receiving comments from people we don't know. In fact, that is one of the fun things about blogs: the forum for discussion. I do that too, comment on peoples' blogs that I read.
Thanks for your comments. I will think over what you wrote.

Mary Brooke said...

Our family (with children just 5,3 and 1) lives in Atlanta and are members of a "reformed" church....I have learned a lot about having a heart for my husband and home (I posted before here about our passion for homeschooling too). The contentment thing is very interesting. "Above Rubies" has taught me a lot about loving the routine tasks as it has been hard for me. I loved your post when Naomi was born. You guys are inspiring. We are praying about God's plans for our family and being available to Him. I struggle with being content with what I accomplish during the day...I guess it's just prioritizing and then realizing that a meal isn't possible sometimes. I've struggled with meal preparation vs. takeout/frozen food. I finally just typed up a list of what I can make and pick a couple every week, eat leftovers and a few takeouts. The nutrition is also important to me. Too much to type for now! Oh, your children have the nicest looking clothes in the pics. Have you looked on ebay for "lots" of quality clothes? Especially girl clothes, there are sooo many. God Bless, Mary Brooke

Leslie said...

Hi Mary Brooke,
(Laughing) I realized after I had written the post about being content with tacky clothing, that I had taken pictures of Abigail in one of her cutest outfits. It didn't really fit, did it? The outfit is a hand-me-down because I would never put out the money that would be required to buy something like that. But I'm sure it made it kind of confusing.

I have looked on ebay occasionally for clothing, but wasn't very impressed with the prices. I felt like the stuff was over priced, especially after you add in shipping, but I should keep trying.

About the meals: I do something similar to what you mentioned. I used to always have such a hard time thinking of my meals each week, and I kept asking Christopher what he wanted, and he finally just typed out a list for me of our family's 30 or 40 favorite meals as well as the cookbook and page number (if applicable)and we taped it inside a cabinet. That way I didn't forget about meals and it made it easier to plan. As I said, ever since I had the newest one, I have just been doing a speghetti/taco/grilled cheese routine. But when life settles a little (or should I say if), I will go back to it. Anyway, good to hear read your comments.

Brandi H. said...

Thanks, Leslie. I struggle with that perfectionism too. Not so much the floors, but with "getting things done" like dinner made, shopping done, whatever. I like your explanation (or the book's) of contentment that isn't ignorance. It's not that you don't see the mess (or the glitter applique), it's that you see them and choose to cover them in grace. The way God sees us. Sadly, when I shop at Wal-mart, sometimes I get this weird reverse pride, like "Look at me, I'm being so frugal." BTW, I didn't hear condescension at all. I thought it was funny.
I am also a stranger. I followed a link from Kyriosity to the article about your son "taking two more." It made me cry, and my husband. I want to view my son as a future man, and that story helped me see what that can look like in real life. Thanks.
p.s. there are lots of hanna's on ebay. ; )