How Contented Is Too Contented?

In the comments on Daniel’s recent post on overemphasizing the “buddy system” as an ethical model, a friend asked the following:

“How content is too content?  I’ve been feeling very happy lately, and it’s making me a little uncomfortable.  Should it?”

I started to respond in a comment but realized I had a lot of thoughts on the subject. So here’s my answer:

First, I think that even pondering the question “How content is too content?” is evidence that you are unlikely to ever be “too content” for very long. If you are truly self-examining to the extent that being “too happy” or “too content” is a cause for question, then I think you are doing a great job of carefully considering the course of your life. Keep on paying attention!

Second, I think a huge part of considering this question involves defining “content”. Do you mean “content” as in “happy and fulfilled and feeling that I am responding well and fully to God’s calling”? Or “content” as in “happy and satiated and feeling that I don’t want to get out of bed ever”? (Confession: fighting this one right now!) Or “content” as in “sedentary, happy, and sitting back on my heels with a feeling that I have arrived and thus can coast through the rest of life”?

I think the “bad” kind of contentedness comes around when we allow happiness to lull us into inaction or a sense of achieved permanency. For example, one way I struggle with contentedness right now is my desire to find one place to live, take root there, and resolve never to leave because I want to be from somewhere and not from everywhere, as I was growing up as a PK. My “poor-me plea” line is, “I’m not really from anywhere — I’ve never lived in any place for more than seven years. I want to plant roots and have a hometown and be FROM somewhere!” Implicit in this near-whine is, “God, after all I’ve done for you, don’t I deserve this? Don’t I deserve being able to rest on my laurels for a while and enjoy my happiness?”

Again, the desire for contentedness is not “bad”. BUT, as we see in my example above, it is extremely easy for a desire for contentedness to “take over” and become an idol, something that we feel God “owes” us. In short, contentedness becomes problematic when we let it block our responsiveness to God’s call.

Let’s return to my “planting roots” example from earlier. Let’s say that Daniel and I have a lovely, happy, financially responsible housing situation that involves living with other Christians (we do). Let’s say that I struggle with feeling like a meandering wanderer with no past roots and I want to make a long-term commitment to a geographical community as a part of my spiritual calling, etc. (I do.) Let’s say that I get so caught up in the importance of planting my roots in my current geographical community that I completely ignore and run from God’s call for us to move to Peru. (This is where it gets hypothetical, but you never know!) At first, my desire for geographical community roots came from a desire to serve God and God’s sheep where I am. That’s a good thing. But as soon as my interpretation of God’s plan for me becomes more important than God’s ACTUAL plan for me, I place my own contentedness higher than God. I no longer want what God wants.

So, how content is too content? …It depends. Do you feel lazily-and-sedentarily contented, like when you never want to get out of bed? Or do you feel actively-and-vocationally contented, like when you feel awesome after a tough workout? Are you sulkily clinging to your contentedness as if God owes you some happy, easy times after “all you’ve done for Him”? Or does your contentedness come from a sense of peace and trust in God’s plans for you, no matter where those plans take you in life?

Of the first kind of contentedness, I want none! (In the big-picture, that is. In the small picture, I want it all the time.)

Of the second kind of contentedness, the kind that comes from having the “peace that passes understanding down in my heart” (Where? Down in my heart!), I want more!

So go ahead and be content — but make sure it comes from God and not from you.

Don’t Overemphasize the Buddy System as an Ethical Model.

I wrote last week about how seeing the Buddy System as an ethical model can help me understand the value of caring for those closest to me. However, the human tendency is to overemphasize and overindulge in the ethical model of the Buddy System.

In other words, in life, we’re generally TOO focused on our buddies, at the expense of other people’s buddies.

We habitually ignore or even devastate other peoples’ families and friends if it allows us to better care for our own.

Some Examples:

I’ll have…

…More money to spend on my family & friends if…

  • I work in a lucrative industry that hurts your family & friends.
  • I give meagerly or not at all to nonprofits that would benefit your family & friends.

…Better prices when I buy things for my family & friends if…

  • I buy from companies that ultimately employ your family & friends in a sweatshop.
  • My government screws up your family & friends’ country’s economy.

…More time and energy for my family & friends if…

  • I don’t concern myself your family & friends’ well being.
  • I buy myself convenience & comfort without regard for your family & friends.

What might that look like in the buddy-system-metaphor?

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, so I overfeed my buddy while others’ buddies go hungry?

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, so I harvest and hoard all the food?

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, so I steal somebody else’s buddy’s food?

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, so I kill and cook somebody else’s buddy?

That’s not now the buddy-system should work. Here’s how it should work:

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, so I feed my buddy and myself first, and then feed others.

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, and I only have enough food for my buddy and me. I feed us, and look for other ways to help others.

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, and we don’t have enough food. The two of us share what we have and search for more.

Don’t get me wrong. Over-applying the Buddy System is WAY better than not using it at all, which looks like this:

Boy scouts, in a forest — my buddy is hungry, but I don’t care; I only look out for myself, and I’m doing fine.

Real humans, real life — I’m a parent, but I neglect my kids. I’m a friend, but not in a caring or helpful way.

And that stuff happens. Sometimes we’re so selfish we ignore not only OTHER people, but also OUR people, eschewing both the “Buddy System” and the “Everybody System” and just living in the “SelfCare System”.

That’s an interesting breakdown: | Buddy System | Everybody System | SelfCare System |

3 systems that run in parallel, are all true & important, but are also in tension with each other:

Everybody System: Act as if everybody matters.

Buddy System: Act as if I’m especially responsible for those closest to me.

SelfCare System: Act as if it’s important for me to watch out for myself.

I highlighted the Buddy System in last week’s post as a way of understanding how truly important it is for us to give special care to our family and friends and to the local communities we’re a part of. But it’s really important to remember to keep the buddy system in its place — namely, as being one of three key systems none of which can be ignored. And it’s important to remember that of the three systems, the Buddy System is not the most ignored or endangered. The title of “Most Ignored Ethical System” goes to the Everybody System in a landslide, because our psyches are set up to care for ourselves and those closest to us — i.e. those who can “pay us back” in one way or another.

So even though a few of us obnoxiously idealistic ethicists out there may occasionally forget why it’s important to give disproportionate care to the people close to us, that’s not the major error that plagues our world, because frankly, it’s not that common. A quest or movement to urge people to care about… the people they care about… is not in dire need. In other words, Don’t Overemphasize the Buddy System as an Ethical Model!

“The Buddy System” as an Ethical Model

Sometimes when I think about the fact that “everybody matters the same and I should act accordingly”, it makes me want to stop worrying about my close friends and family and start enacting some global good.

Why would I sit here and listen to my friend or spend time with my relatives, when people are literally dying and I could do something about it?

The only justifications I could muster — before thinking about “the buddy system” — were somewhat weak:

  • In some ways I’m more positioned to care for those close to me than those far away
    • Yeah, but far away (or in larger-scale-care) a dollar (or an hour) can go a really long way…
  • Caring for those close to me refreshes me to better serve others on a larger scale
    • Yeah, but that only works when it’s actually refreshing! And only for a pretty limited amount.

Harsh! And maybe a little depressing. “utilitarian/humanitarian love”, loving ALL neighbors no less than myself, seemed to dwarf the impact of “local/relational love”, or at least, made it hard for me to mentally appreciate.

But then recently, and I don’t remember how, I thought about the Buddy System. Here’s what Wikipedia has for us on the subject:

The buddy system… [used by the armed forces, boy scouts, and field-trip students]… is a procedure in which two people, the “buddies”, operate together as a single unit so that they are able to monitor and help each other. …. The main benefit of the system is improved safety; each may be able to … rescue the other in a crisis.

Eureka! So that’s the value of giving special effort to taking care of the people within our own tight-knit communities! The buddy system exists to make sure that everybody has somebody watching out for them. It keeps people from falling through the cracks. Think about it; I’d never say to my buddy, “I know you’re my designated buddy, but I’m going to leave you to go see how I can help some more people elsewhere.” When the buddy system works well, I can trust that the other people in my context are being cared for as well as is possible by their own buddies.

What gets hard is when the buddy system breaks down — when I as a boy-scout or world-citizen know that some people somewhere are not being adequately cared for through this system.

There’ll be more on that next week. But what I still know is this: even if the buddy system is failing elsewhere (say, in another campsite or another country), it’s generally not advisable for me to abandon the buddies appointed to me in my attempts to help the people for whom the buddy system isn’t working.

In human terms, this means that no matter how badly hurting the people of the world are, I’m going look out first for my wife, family, and close friends. But it also means that I’m accountable to work WITH those same people to serve a hurting world, because the buddy system isn’t a justification for ignoring faraway pain, it’s merely a prerequisite to addressing it. The buddy system has limitations. I can’t very well watch a scout bleed and die in the interest of keeping watch over my perfectly safe appointed buddy. Again, more on this next week.

But I must say I was very glad to find the metaphor of the buddy system for why I really do care a lot more for the people closest to me than for the average inhabitant of this world, even though the average inhabitant is just as valuable as those I love most.

Why I’m Glad I Married a ‘Weirdo’

When one goes to college, one often branches out from one’s upbringing. This has been the case with me. During the course of college, I finally “blossomed” out of my rather quiet, oblivious little shell. I left home, left my church denomination, and even left the country!

This was, at times, a confusing and difficult journey — and one that’s still continuing, as I’ve recently left the teaching profession in favor of I’m not sure what yet. But in all of this, my college-and-beyond exploration into my own purpose and weird-ness, I was always accompanied by my just-as-weird, ever-more-explorational partner.

Now, for those of you who may not know my husband well, let me sketch him out for you. The first thing you notice is his shockingly blue eyes. The second is his crinkly-warm smile. And the third is the fact that he sort of hums with frenetic energy. It is often a point of pride in our house that he received the highest score ever seen at his testing center — for the ADHD diagnostic he took in college. His fashion sense has come a long way, he delights in asking deep questions rather out of the blue, and he has lovingly been described as a fifty-fifty combination of Francis Chan and Buddy the Elf.

In other words, he’s pretty “unique”!

But that gets me to thinking — what would have happened if I had dated (and married) someone more “normal” — someone “safe” and “socially acceptable” and more predictable? I think it would have held me back.

Daniel’s freedom of expression and his love for validating people’s uniqueness allows me to do things I never would have done without him. I feel safe. I feel loved without strings. I feel like I can be who I want to be and not have to keep being the person I always was before.

And really, that’s what finding a life partner is about: finding the person who helps you become the “you” you’ve always wanted to be, the “you” God created you to be.

So yes, sometimes I just shake my head and smile, or wonder what other folks might think if they heard or saw some of the things that happen around our house. But even the moments that make my social spidey senses tingle remind me that allowing people to be who they are is WAY more important than forcing them into a box for my own comfort.

And that’s why I’m glad I married my weirdo.

Daniel and me at a funny Christmas sweater party.
Christmas 2011