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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Culling Contentment

Thursday, March 05, 2009

I'm leading a Lenten group at our church called "Cultivating Contentment." The idea for the group is very open-ended, and I used the first gathering last Sunday to get a sense of where people are experiencing contentment in their lives and where they aren't. I was surprised to hear from many of the 13 participants (lots of them being retired) a sense of discontent not with material possessions and well-being, but rather with things tied to obligation and duty. People were voicing an oppressive sense that they aren't doing enough, that they are not content with their ability to do good.

It could be, of course, that people are as discontent with their material status as I assumed; they're just not admitting it. I'm sure that's true to some extent. But I'm genuinely surprised by this other discontent, and I'm not quite sure what to do with it.

One resource I'm going to use, one that I was using for something completely unrelated to the Lenten group, is Elsewhere U.S.A. by Dalton Conley. The book's main thesis is that Americans today are working more than ever and are less satisfied and secure in their work than ever. We feel like we should be elsewhere all the time; we should be working during leisure time and we should be playing with the kids instead of working. On and on it goes. One of the things that Conley suggests is leading to this discontent with the what and where of right now is something he calls an "economic red shift":
From any link in the chain, it looks like everyone else is rushing away. We may be doing better and pulling away from those below us (perhaps that old college friend who is still struggling to find his calling), while the folks just above us on the income ladder are leaving us in their wake. . . An individual in the top half of income distribution appears, to herself, to be at the eye of an economic storm. This is equally true for those in the top 1 percent as for those just above the median U.S. income. This simultaneous dropping of the floor and raising of the ceiling is enough to induce a panicked, though rational, anxiety response: Work constantly.

Could that be behind my group's sense that they're not doing enough? Could there be a "spiritual red shift" at work, wherein people feel a pull to do more and more (volunteer more, come to church more often, give more) because they perceive that everyone else is doing more than them?

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 10:39 AM

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