She’d had a privileged education, had become versed in European literature, could read Latin and speak three modern languages fluently. She was healthy, solvent and now free to do as she wished. By any standard, this was an advantageous start to her adult life. Qualified and confident in herself, she set out to travel and explore the world.
Her experiences were interesting and varied, though not as rewarding as she first had imagined. So after a year she came back to England and got a job in publishing – a plan which suited her well so she thought. She’d landed the perfect means of earning a living and so could settle into her life back in England with an assured future ahead of her.
After a while she began to dimly sense that her career may never prove quite as fulfilling as she’d anticipated. It had begun to feel one-dimensional, as if going nowhere in an undisturbed and rather bland serenity. Was this to be the sum total of her reward in life? How could this ever prove satisfying to her at any fundamental level?
She gradually realised with an increasing certainty that she wasn’t really contented in her stable and untroubled life. So she decided the best thing to do was to ordain as a nun, to live her life in an ascetic and highly controlled monastic order. Here, she would find the answer to her discontentment. Here, the fulfilment she sought would be found.
For 12 years she lived shaven-headed, wearing the unwomanly, rough cotton robes of her order. She spent her days in prayer and meditation, and in performing duties around the monastery. She was convinced that she’d eventually come to some understanding, to see what it was that prevented her from feeling content with life, and within herself.
Finally, she decided she’d had enough, so disrobed and quit the order to re-enter Civvy Street. A few months later, we were having dinner together at her place, discussing the whole experience. She didn’t seem too enthusiastic; so I asked her why she’d spent all those years locked away from the world. ‘Because I was stupid’, she said.
What my friend learned was that we don’t ‘find’ contentment; we don’t discover it in different places or situations. What she learned was that the fulfilment and contentedness she’d sought both by going outwards in travel, and inwards in meditation, were the wrong approaches. What she learned was that contentment couldn’t be reached by her ‘self’.
Very few individuals show the radical determination that my friend did in her search for contentedness. Most of us incline to the more obvious and conservative routes to well-being. We choose acquisitiveness through careers, or reputation, through our families or in our relationships. Most of us don’t stake everything on the search.
This, as my friend eventually discovered, is a good thing. For her, it wasn’t the travel that was misguided, or the career, or the interminable hours of prayer and meditation. It was the seeking itself. It was the idea she had that she could ‘find’ contentment, and that once found, this sense of well-being would attach to her – she’d possess it for her ‘self’.
When she’d responded to my question as to why she’d taken such an extreme approach to finding contentment, she spoke a profound truth. In saying ‘because I was stupid’, she was telling me a lot about myself, and about most of us in fact. What I learned from that stark comment was that I’d be stupid too if I let my ‘self’ go in search of contentment.
And this is the great difficulty, the paradox, the conundrum. Behind all our ideas about becoming happier, more fulfilled, about garnering prestige or increasing our pleasures, there’s a fundamental flaw. There’s the notion that all these things can be attached to and experienced by my ‘self’. But this ‘self’ is just an idea, a narrative process acting itself out.
Once we begin to realise what my friend did, that the unfolding narrative of her ‘self’ was what obstructed contentedness, the paradox begins to dissolve. And being willing to see through that mostly deeply held belief, that story of ‘me’ and my ‘self’, is what’s truly radical. This is an old message, a timeless one. Am I stupid to ignore it?