Because life is a series of edits

The Contentment Equation

In Friends, Health, Humanity, Science, Westminster on March 18, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I had a tough discussion with a student this week – tough not because of the student, but because of the student's family situation. Details aren't important for my purposes here, so I'll refrain from sharing any; suffice it to say, I wanted to help a lot more than I could. Leaving school, I prayed for the student, asking God to grant strength and maturity in handling parents who are both behaving badly.

As I was praying, I wondered when the last time the student had ever felt real and extended contentment in life. Was it within the past year? Doubtful – we've been processing the situation together since at least November. Any time during the teenage years? Possibly, but most of what the student is dealing with has been years in the making, and teenagers pick up on that stuff. When my student was in elementary school? I hope not (that would be a while ago). Even before then? Man.

I think about stuff like this a lot – not just with kids, but adults as well. My theory (and I'm just throwing it out here) is that the further a person has to go back to find real and extended contentment, the older they feel and seem to others. Granted, this idea may not be rocket science (and I'll grant that my definitions of "real" and "extended" are more than a bit fuzzy), but I wonder if a math-type could put together an equation to qualitatively test my hypothesis; all I've got is a gut feeling it's true.

As any good teacher asks a student for an answer to his own question, I tried to answer mine. When was the last period of real and extended contentment for me? When was the first? How many have there been in between? Most importantly (I think), how young (or old) does the accumulation or absence of these make me seem to others? I'll be honest: I feel (and have felt) pretty content for much of the past year, but has that been contentment or just happiness? What really marks a difference between the two?

A favorite passage on this topic is Paul's statement in Philippians 4:11-13:

"I have learned in whatever situation I am to be a content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

God's promise in verse 13 is every Christian's favorite – that is, until they discover that being content is what God promises to strengthen us for (instead of just winning sport events or passing tests). For hermeneutical reasons, I stopped applying this verse to non-contentment kinds of things a long time ago, but I'm not sure how recent it's been since I picked it up again to apply it in the right way. I'm not sure I'm that brave.

With regard to my schizophrenic inquiries above, I'm still thinking through my answers; however, I'm as interested in whether the questions are even the right ones as well. What do you think of my equation (try this for starters: PA (perceived age) = AA (actual age) – C (contentment) / T (time))? How accurate does it seem in measuring your own experience? And what does it take for you to feel as well as talk about being content in your own life?

  1. It cannot be quantified without Christ. That is certain. I never truly knew it before Jesus.
    As for your student, I believe the answer is the same. Even in the midst of extreme suffering Christ offers Himself to those who believe. True contentment is not situational.
    Hmm, good things to think on brother. I love reading through all that Paul went through and he still knew contentment. I cannot wrap my mind around it, but I know it’s available to me.

  2. Interesting theory. Just to clarify, are you saying discontentment makes a person seem older? because the formula, since it subtracts from AA, would make a person perceived as younger…
    If you are saying discontentment makes people seem older, I would venture to say it can also make people seem younger. I think the part of it that makes people seem older is a certain weariness and cynicism that typically comes later in life, and perhaps a lack of zest ans passion. However, it can also make a person seem younger in a sense of maturity. I think contentment and maturity are both inextricably tied to selflessness. Discontentment=self-focused=lack of maturity. Not necessarily social maturity, although sometimes it can be…but there is a certain “youngness” (immaturity) in us when we cannot accept and praise God for the circumstances we are in. Like, it seems a bit high schoolish…the sad part is we all deal with discontentment at all ages in life.
    Don’t know if that made sense. Just some musings.

  3. Your formula observation is correct, Britney (as I said, I’m not a mathematician), but we’re saying the same thing in the end. I do think discontentment can cause one to be perceived both ways, older or younger. Maybe a more accurate equation would be:
    C (contentment) / T (time) x AA (actual age) = PA (perceived age)
    Again, I’m more a (hack) philosopher than a mathematician, but the (hack) theologian in me wants to do some more study/thinking on this.

  4. I see a lot of my patients who also look/seem much older than they are. For adults, I also wonder if it would be possible to add in some factor that calculates all the bad things that have happened to them – abuse, divorce, lost children, and maybe also the bad ways they deal with it – drugs, alcohol, overeating, smoking. Maybe the formula could be C/T X AA + (K X (LS+MR) = PA
    where k = the bad stuff constant (because every good formula needs a constant) and LS = a number quantifying the bad life situations they have been in, and MR = their own maladaptive response. Not that you could actually quantify this, but I do see over and over again how bad situations, often caused by sin, plus a maladaptive response to these situations really ages a person. Maybe when people have a good response to a bad situation – like your student trying to seek God’s will and understanding even in the midst of the sin that surrounds him – kind of are protective for people. Not only that God can bless us and grow us through these tough times, but learning to deal well with problems allows us to learn and grow, and be better prepared for the next time of struggle or disappointment. As someone who has been having a hard time lately, that is certainly what I am trying to cling to – that God has a purpose in all this and it will all be used for his Glory.
    I really liked this post – and I needed that reminder from Paul about being content in all circumstances. So thanks! we’ll miss you here in blogland when you take your break.

  5. I had meant to get back to you, Aubrey, that I liked your equation, particularly the inclusion of the constant “k” to represent life’s junk. If nothing else, this exercise has been a fun one to use to think about life in different terms than normal (kind of like using a different instrument to write a song), and while I recognize the limitations of turning life into a series of equations, I would also argue that there are aspects of life that fit into it as well. Thanks for playing along.

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