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She lived a long and healthy life but her body was finally beginning to buckle under the weight of her age.
Nevertheless, she had a youthful sense about her. She did not appear afraid of her impending death. She was not sad. She was not bitter.
Instead, she smiled as she recounted her life. She told jokes. She talked about how grateful she was for her family and a life marked mostly by good health.
As I looked around her home, my new acquaintance did not display conventional signs of a successful life. There were no advanced degrees on her walls. The home was simple and humble. And not once did she try to impress me with details of her accomplishments.
She was happy to be alive. She was not afraid to die. She was content.
The growth trap
I wanted to know her secret to her ease and joy in the face of her demise. I asked myself, “If I were in her shoes today, could I approach my death with a sense of ease?”
I pressed her, waiting for her response with bated breath as if she was about to give me the location of the fountain of youth. But there was no secret. She just kept referring back to her gratefulness for her long life and good health.
The contrast between us was jarring. Here I was, young and in perfectly good health but not nearly as content or grateful.
In today’s world, it can be a challenge to be content. We’re bombarded with messages reminding us about what we’re missing out on. We’re told in subtle and not so subtle ways that we need even more money and clothes. Our smartphones and other technology become obsolete in the blink of an eye.
We’re told that more is better. We’re told to pursue success and happiness. All you need to do is keep growing by acquiring more. We’re told to set goals for ourselves and strive to reach for these arbitrary markers of happiness.
I’ve observed in myself and others that once we hit milestones we once thought unimaginable, we never feel quite as satisfied as we had hoped. And if we do, the feeling fades in a matter of days.
So we move targets, setting bigger goals. And as the theory goes, we keep hitting bigger and bigger goals until, voila, we reach the pinnacle of joy. But for most people, it doesn’t quite work that way. Instead, it often turns out to be a trap.
And once you on the treadmill of achieving more and more in order to feel whole and worthy, it’s hard to come off. If you’re exhausted for no apparent reason, you’re likely on the growth treadmill. If you can’t relax enough to share a laugh with friends, you’re likely caught in the growth trap.
I know what it feels like because I’ve found myself caught many times. Meeting with my new friend ignited my desire to be free—for good.
What is contentment?
I can almost hear you say, “That’s good for you, but I’d rather take my chances seeking success.” If you resist the idea of contentment, you may have some misunderstandings about what it means to be content. You’d hardly be alone.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that contentment means settling for less, being mediocre, or lacking ambition.
But contentment is none of these things. There are many contented people out there who are highly ambitious and value growth. Had I inquired, I’m almost certain my dying friend could point to accomplishments she was proud of.
So, what is contentment and why is it so important? For me, contentment is discovered or lost on the other side of this crucial question:
If I knew I was going to die today, would I be ok with my life?
If facing your unrealized hopes, dreams, and desires, you could genuinely say yes, then you truly know what contentment is. You know that contentment is the missing key to true happiness and lasting joy.
You understand that, even as you pursue growth in every area of life, you already have everything you need.
Because contentment is not settling for less. It’s a joyful acknowledgment of the abundant blessing in your life. More importantly, it’s a rich abundance that can never be lost or taken away.
A contentment practice
Stop what you’re doing.
Set a timer for two minutes.
Close your eyes and sit up straight.
Say to yourself, “If I died today, I’d be ok.”
Hold yourself in this state until the timer goes off.
Repeat as often as you wish.