Writing as an inhabitant of an island which, whilst sinking in debt, is superficially moneyed, I’m conscious that the title of this piece is a little facile. I have no clever way with finances, and am still to luck-out on the lottery, yet hold few concerns over meeting my future needs, and none over my present. And I write having made what is I think a fair guess: that most readers too are similarly comfortable. But if like the good lady in our picture, your living is scraped selling wildfowl on the streets of Havana, these musings could but only appear both facile and irrelevant.
So the expression in the title ‘with little’ is relative. Contextually, it means the provision of one’s modest needs and comforts only, relative to societal norms. And the argument I put forward invites you to ponder a way of living contentedly which discounts unreasoned desire and aspiration. Now of course, we can dwell contentedly with any amount of excess or luxury, though these surfeits add naught to our emotional well-being. Once satiated psychologically, their indulgence produces nothing further in our subjective sense of ease – rien du tout, zip, nada.
So why argue the case for moderation; what’s the point in spoiling all the fun? From any ethical or environmental perspective, the case can be readily, if a little tediously, made; such positions need no reworking here. This is about contentedness; we’re juggling with ideas of personal passivity and (dare I say it?) acceptance. It’s about how these dynamics play out subjectively in the warp and weft of life. The case to argue here surrounds our compulsive possessiveness, our overstated claims, our overreaching desires, and how these blind us to our emotional needs. And what does any such lack of balance produce? For many it conduces only to ill health or the despoiling of relationships and family life. We pursue this myth of well-being through accumulation whilst neglecting ourselves and those closest to us. Not only this, but we miss the mark of contentedness itself; because by definition, to be content is to be satisfied and remain psychologically at rest with what one has. We need to re-examine what motivates this acquisitiveness and look at its effects – did it produce the sense of fulfilment we rashly assumed that it would?
Indeed, so blinded are we as to what motivates our accumulative nature that we’ve lost sight of its very purpose. We’re often only barely aware, if at all, of what drives our compulsive desires; whilst the vision we have of the objects of those desires retains an almost hallucinogenic vibrancy. We unthinkingly hunt down what occupies our attentions whilst losing sight of the primary reason for their pursuit. What drove the process was a matter of the psyche: a deeper need for emotional fulfilment. We confuse the means with the end, and are left dissatisfied time and again.
Much of this behaviour is rewarded with short-term gratifications. We momentarily or, perhaps for a day or two, feel satisfied with our successful acquisition. This fleeting sense of gratification acts as an endorsement of the process and so we fail to question whether our more fundamental psychological needs were met. We set out in our pursuit so as to feel happier or more contented; and this again, is what drove the whole process – the need for emotional fulfilment. In a sense we’re bought off by the fleeting gratification; we’re sold short, short-changed. And of course, because of this, the psychological needs remain in place. We still, albeit perhaps only at a barely conscious level, have a sense of lack or dissatisfaction. So accustomed are we to this vague feeling that we never question its existence; we accept it as part of the emotional wallpaper. And yet it’s this that triggers the next round of acquisitiveness, the repetition of compulsive desire. It’s no wonder that after a few years of this cycle, we become stressed and anxious; our health begins to fail; our relationships disintegrate; things fall apart.
So, moderation and a sense of balance are called for. In reappraising what it is that we want from life, we discover the fundament is simply contentedness. We now have a clear reference point from which we can navigate our way towards balance. For many of us, this reorientation will involve moderating desires and aspirations. Actually, it entails clarifying the hierarchy of our desires themselves. This means indulging only those reasoned conducive to emotional fulfilment, and bringing balance to any habituated tendency to acquire, accumulate and possess.
It’s not about asceticism and depriving ourselves of pleasure per se. Material acquisitiveness is hardly an assurance of delight and pleasure in any case. If we can calm this fetishisation of possession, of accumulation, we lend ourselves to a pleasing sense of ease amidst even the mundane, finding repose in our simple presence of being. So the moderation balances the overreaching fixation with goods, with what is truly good. Absenting this, we remain trapped in a cycle of desire and gratification, never free to realise any enduring emotional well-being.
In contentedness, we relinquish desire itself, and the need to moderate expires along with it. Desire on its own isn’t pleasant, no more than thirst and hunger are. It’s often accompanied with excitement, and we conflate and confuse the two. Clarifying this conceptual mess involves living contemplatively, and in so doing we disentangle ourselves from the whole sorry state. The idea of contentedness with little isn’t viewed as some trite and precious New-Age trope; it’s lived and is real. In using desire to overcome desire, we at last find what we’ve been looking for.