Just imagine a little room, big enough for two, maybe three if one is a child. The furnishings are comfortable. It’s warm, maybe there’s a fire you can sit by. On a table sits a full plate. No one here is going to starve, or even want for much. For amusement there are books, games, even perhaps a computer.
Outside there are other rooms in other homes where neighbors and friends dwell. This room with all its accouterments, when filled by people who love one another, is the best life on earth offers.
People used to long for such a space. In many times and in many places around the world, these meager comforts have been difficult to attain. That’s mostly behind us now, at least in the West.
In modern America, a home like this and all it entails is within reach of almost everyone. And now that we have reached this threshold of plenty, we find almost no one can be satisfied with the elemental comforts of family, friends, good food and warmth.
There are two primary reasons for this, one internal and one external.
People have trouble being satisfied with what is now easily available because people have trouble being satisfied. Our nature tends toward dissatisfaction and complaint. Part of us is always seeking something better, second-guessing what we’ve chosen, comparing our situation with those we imagine have it better. That’s just how we are.
Society used to recognize this fact. Back then, there was more cultural support for those interested in changing their inner habits. Cultural institutions reinforced the need for character, the need to shape oneself to fit an ideal.
Now, of course, that practice is mostly gone. An ideal still exists, of course, but it’s a very different ideal. The ideal is no longer to be a modest person capable of being satisfied, grateful for whatever blessings have been bestowed up on you. The ideal now is to be an active achiever whose worth and value are recognized and rewarded with ever-increasing purchasing power. Where once the ideal emphasized contentment, the ideal now emphasizes the power to consume.
Naturally, a focus on climbing the ladder toward greater consumptive power conflicts with the ability to be satisfied by those elemental pleasures in our imaginary room. The solution to this problem is the cultivation of character. The answer is to exercise our will to overcome our impulse toward more, toward dissatisfaction. We need to remove from our minds everything that keeps us from seeing what truly brings satisfaction.
This is difficult to do because of the second reason for our mass disinterest in the now widely available pleasures of home. This one lies outside our souls and in the culture that surrounds us. We all have voices inside us that urge us to dissatisfaction, and we live in a culture that prods us to listen.
People have a hard time living quiet, happy lives because powerful forces profit from their doing otherwise. Our situation is not just that people want more and more, but that they are told daily to want more and more. They are told that the normal, healthy, good person wants more and more. Advertisers sell a vision of the good life daily and lots of people buy it.
Eventually, people find themselves in a position where even if they discipline themselves to be satisfied with the basic comforts and pleasures of home, they can barely enjoy them. People often wake up to the true nature of their harried, disjointed lives only after living out such patterns has taken its toll. By the time they realize what’s happening, reverting to a lifestyle of simple pleasures is impossibly complicated.
Take money, for example. Living a life that emphasizes the appreciation of home and neighbor doesn’t require riches, but it does require economic stability. Our society, the richest in history, makes economic stability difficult to achieve. Seventy-six percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Charles Hugh Smith has written about how hard it is for most people to earn $60,000 a year.
Without this kind of economic stability it’s tough to relax. Without the chance to relax, it’s almost impossible to meditate on the values that create a life that satisfies. Our internal inclination toward dissatisfaction conspires with the society around us to keep us from the kind of profound reflection necessary to build an approximate home.
So, in spite of the fact that the basics of a stable, safe and satisfying life are now easily within the grasp of most people, we find ourselves tossed about by internal and external realities that cause us to devalue them. As a result, many who imagine the little room described above see not a haven from the pressures of the world, but a cell that holds them back from something better they are sure is to come.
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