Everyone, no matter what culture they are from or how long they have lived, has a basic need to feel content. Contentment is something that some seem to have naturally, while others appear to struggle for it throughout their lives. Contentment, for all of its simplicity, is one of life’s great, but humblest, joys. It is found at the very core of happiness, joy, peacefulness, satisfaction and rest. It is an undercurrent, sublimely powerful but almost never at the surface of our thoughts. It clears our vision and perceptions so we can see things that are otherwise obscured by worries and unachievable wants or unnecessary clutter. Contentment enhances our enjoyment of the nearness of loved ones, colors our appreciation of surrounding beauty and calms the sting of past wounds.
At its most elementary meaning, contentment is satisfaction with what one has, with how things are. Although we can be content with the way a particular thing is going, the larger question of contentment with ourselves is at the root of happiness. Contentment is not related to how much of something we have, but whether we have enough to fill our needs. Ironically, having more than we need does not add to our contentment, rather it tends to erase it. To be content requires us to have limits. These limits define the boundary between when we have acquired all that we need and when we need to continue trying to acquire more. Limits also bring a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and satisfaction when they are reached.
Many years ago I had the opportunity to travel the back country of Peru, into the heart of the Inca’s Sacred Valley from Machu Picchu to Cuzco, then to Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian border. As we stopped in small remote villages, the people exuded a contentment, happiness and generosity that I found sorely lacking in myself and in many of the people I knew back home (I had also seen this sense of contentment in the rural Mayan people of the Yucatan Peninsula a year earlier). We took a small boat out to an ancient pre-Incan floating village on Lake Titicaca called Los Uros. The village was a collective of small floating islands built up from reeds. These reeds, which grew in profusion in the marshy areas of the lake, were cut by hand and taken to the family’s island. There they were laid down to replenish the island and to fashion boats, huts, mats, hats and utensils. An island may have several to many families, each occupying one or two huts, and a communal cooking place. The residents get everything they need from the lake and, by “developed” country standards, they own almost nothing in material items.
While there, two young Uru children approached me as I visited their family’s little island. They told me that they were in second grade and that they loved school (which was on the mother island). They held out two pieces of scrap cardboard for me to see. The bashful children beamed with pride as I examined their crayon scribbles, representing pictures of their parents fishing and cooking. “That’s my mommy!”, the little girl giggled as she pointed to the woman on the card, who was putting a large fish into a pot. I purchased these “post cards” and let them know that I thought they were beautiful and I was so happy to have them. The little artists scurried off to report their great fortune to their parents. These children, just like their parents and ancestors before them, had never owned a toy (except what they found to play with along the lake), wore clothing that had been woven and sewn by their mother, ate food that was obtained by their father from the lake, never ate in a restaurant, never shopped in a retail center, never knew that designer labels existed. Neither did they have the stressful or rebellious angles to their faces so common in children from modern societies. They had everything they could ever want- their family’s abundant love, healthy food, a few pieces of lovingly crafted clothing, grade school and a rich heritage to ground them. Inside of their home fashioned from woven reed mats, there were few personal belongings, blankets and cooking utensils. The visitors came to see these people and to wonder at their resourcefulness and way of life. The residents of Los Uros did not envy them.
I came away from Los Uros with something unexpected. I saw something in these people that I wanted, and that I had missed in my own life. Later, I discovered that to be contentment. They were a contented and happy people because they had all they needed. Their lives were focused on providing what was essential, and once they had attained it, they could rest. Their needs and wants were aligned, and these defined the limits of their work and of their quests for more. Realistically, we need very little to get through life and most of us have much more than we need. So long as we have realistic goals and achievable desires, contentment will be a constant, comforting and reassuring companion. For those who don’t have limits, contentment is unachievable because they can never have enough.
Sometimes, I think about these little children, who are now most certainly adults with children of their own living on a floating island. I wish that their contentment stays with them throughout their entire lives. And, I am very grateful for the lesson that those little humble and happy children gave to me with those scrap pieces of cardboard.