Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Our Disease of Discontent

The Good Life

Where can wisdom, joy, and peace be found in the monotony of daily life?  The Book of Ecclesiastes has much to teach us about what is, in effect, the daily experience of  most of our lives: the dull drudgery of existence.  But it is teaching not understood by many in the West.  It represents our particular curse.

 For most Western cultures, drudgery is a calling to be pursued by machines, not souls.  Therefore, there is a subterranean discontent, a roiling of soul, because we cannot escape the tedium of life, its repetitiveness, nor its dullness.  For so many in the West, life is one long boring monotony interspersed by seasons of desperate excitement originating from the occasional spectacle of entertainment.  The Western soul is deeply discontented.

Here is the biblical perspective on dull monotonies:
What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. [Ecclesiastes 3:9-13]
What is God's gift to man?  It is that he should accept his limitations, as Clint Eastwood so sagely remarked in one of his movies,  and learn to live joyfully all his days, taking pleasure in his eating, his drinking and his toil.  All of these, our entire existence, is God's gift to man.  Seeing this, learning it, accepting it is the path of life--as we learn to worship God and His gifts in the (otherwise) mundane monotony.  When we do this, the mundane life becomes a glorious uplifting symphony of praise and worship to our Lord.

In his book, Recovering Eden, Zack Erswine takes up these themes. Speaking of our "lot" in life, he remarks:

Our lot is like a ship.  The seasons are like the wind and the waves.  Seasons sometimes put wind in the sails of our lot.  Other seasons toss our lot about so that it can seem at times as if our lot is sinking and that we must abandon ship.  He do we retain our purpose of joy with God amid the portion of food, work, family, relationships, and place that he has given us when the seasons change? [Zach Erswine, Recovering Eden (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), p. 131.]
The thing is that there is so much about life we do not know, nor understand.  We cannot answer the question, Why? with respect to so many of the circumstances of our life.  "Why did God allow this, or cause this to be?" is the incessant beating drum of the anxious discontented soul. Surely life is meant to be better than this, we frequently tell ourselves--in the upbraiding tone of the malconent.

Erswine makes mention of Benedicta Ward's compilation of ancient Christian disciples, entitled The Sayings of the Desert Fathers  [1984], citing in particular Saint Anthony, who was discontented with life, restless with his "place" or "lot".  He was bored, melancholic, with a wandering mind.  Anthony records a gestalt in which he saw  a man like himself sitting down and working, then standing up to pray, then sitting down again to make a plait of palm leaves, then standing up to pray!  . . .  Anthony heard an angel of the Lord saying to him, "Do this and you will be cured."

Writes Erswine:
When the unknown taunts your mind within the season you find yourself, give yourself to the next thing in the place you are.  Knit your palms into rope.  Then stand for a while and pray.  Knit. Pray. Knit. Pray. Eat. Drink.  Enjoy your family.  And notice the sun.  Give thanks for its light.  Take pleasure in its gift.  God is near.  This small way and tiny rhythm resemble the grand way of life for which human beings were given Eden.  Our way forward more often than not is found where we are.  [Ibid., p.139]
Thus, says the Preacher:
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.  Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.  [Ecclesiastes 11: 6-7]

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