Wednesday, January 10, 2007

To Be, Or Not To Be... Content

I've observed this phenomenon for the longest time now, and I'm trying to get my head around the reason for it. Have you ever noticed how something can go along just fine at a particular level, like a government program, or a household budget, or a ministry, and things are generally getting taken care of, but not opulently? Then, when times are good, and the money is flowing, this thing will continue to expand with the increased income. We add a feature here, or a frill there, and we all think at the time what a blessing it is to have a little cushion, and room to play with a few options. Then, as often happens, when the extra money dries up, and we return to the earlier place where things are fine but not full of extra added bonus options, it's suddenly a crisis. It's odd how big a problem it can be just to return to what used to be normal.

In our personal lives it shows up as luxuries becoming necessities. Our culture is rife with examples. Modern life gradually adapted to household appliances, and now how many people head down to the stream with their weekly laundry? How many could even imagine the concept? Automobiles, and modern freeways, grocery store scanners, heck, even diaper changing stations in restrooms, all of these have become standard in our world over the decades. More recently, cable TV, computers, cell phones, PDAs, once greeted as new toys to make life a little more fun or convenient, have become crucial to our well being. Vacations or holidays, once something only the privileged could afford, have become American imperatives. Some of us still don't have those luxuries, but many Americans would be aghast if they didn't get their two-weeks-plus a year to spend as they choose. We've adapted upward in the comfort department.

The same phenomenon occurs in other areas. Government programs and ministries that start small get bigger and bigger, like it's the flow of nature. Someone comes up with a good idea, "Oh, if only we had the money to do this." Then the money eventually becomes available, as the economy takes an upturn, and behold, a new feature is added to a government program, or a church program, or a business, and it's a good thing. People are helped, and bigger plans are made for even more good works. The thing that gets tricky, though, is that in the course of all this affluence, things that cost extra don't seem like as big a deal as they would when the money's tighter. "Let's add a logo here. We want people to remember our program." "Let's expand the office. We don't need to have everyone in such a tight space." "Let's have the library open more hours. That way it will be more convenient for people to use." "Let's offer free tree-planting services to the neighborhood." "Let's expand the Biology department." "Let's have the planning meeting at a seaside resort." (My Mom tells a story about a fancy government-funded retreat she went on where the planners intentionally spent lots of extra money so they would use up their budget for the year, and be given the same amount for the next year because of it.)

Then something unexpected happens. For some reason the economy isn't doing so well, or something else becomes a priority, and suddenly, there isn't enough money to spend to print logos on all the stationary and go on the planning retreat too. The City Hall party has to be a picnic, instead of a catered dinner. The company newsletter has to become a company email. (Of course, that's just reasonable anyway.) The office need to be consolidated to make room for the people coming in from the wing that got rented to another firm. Hours get cut. Services get eliminated. Departments get trimmed. People have to start making choices about what they really need to spend the money on, and suddenly everything is in a terrible state.

The funny thing is that this is usually viewed as a budget crisis. Cutting back to levels that used to be considered normal becomes a calamity. Why is that? Why do things that used to reside in the "luxuries" camp gradually move into the "necessities" camp? We go back with such bad grace to hand writing addresses on envelopes when we run out of printed labels. We find it a terrible chore to go back to washing the dishes by hand when the dishwasher breaks down. We fuss because we can't afford to eat out as often as we used to do. Are we so incapable of accepting that the tide goes both in and out? Is it that impossible to downshift? My theory is that in some things we simply forget what it used to be like, and in others we remember all too well what things used to be like, and we don't want to give up any ground. We either forget that we used to get along just fine without Cable Internet (my personal luxury turned necessity), or we remember how much better it seemed when we stopped having to share our workspace with that guy named Al who had such bad breath. We latch onto improvements in life as if they must be permanent, or if not permanent, only to be replaced with something better.

This whole ramble of thoughts spring from my observations of the world of late. I'm trying to get a handle on how we can be so negative, especially in America, when we have so much, more than at any other time in human history. What it all comes down to is that the human race struggles with the art of being content. We fail to recognize what C.S. Lewis called the Law of Undulation. The good and the bad ebb and flow. Neither tends to be a permanent. I've been trying hard to remember when things are bad, that something about life will eventually start getting better. I'm also trying to remember when things are good, not to get too attached to that state, because it too is going to pass. Enjoy the good. Endure the bad, all with an eye to the fact that I can make things so much better or worse by my attitude about them. I can hold on so tightly to the good that my hands get torn when it is pulled from my grasp. I can cringe so hard at the bad that comes my way that I shut my eyes and life to the blessings that go with it, missing them entirely. There is another option, too. I can hold on lightly and ride with the waves as they undulate by. I may not choose everything that comes in and out of my life, but I do choose whether to let myself turn something good to pain and something bad to worse. Paul said some words that apply, if you happen to be a Christian. "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13) Remembering that can make all the difference.