All Looks Jaundiced to a Yellow Eye
By Brenda J. Evans
I need Llewellyn today, my friend who is a poet and knows 32 synonyms for grieve. She is good with verbs that tell me how to do things. I am looking for how to become content. What to do; how to get it. Do I dig for it with a spade like I might for diamonds in Arkansas? Buy it? Conjure it? Work it up?
What does it say about me that I can’t even come up with words for how to get contentment? Even the word get sounds wrong, mercenary, as if contentment is a commodity I can buy or bargain for. Contentment is not some misplaced object lying in a ditch that I can heave into my vehicle and carry home. My search for the right word is like contentment itself—elusive.
Sometimes, I’m like the hogs we had when I was a child. They rooted in mud to make a loblolly to mire in and stay cool, or snouted their way under our fence in quest of food, escape, and pleasure. Sometimes, they bit each other fighting over the slop Daddy poured in the trough. If I nose around long enough, I’ll eventually make a muck to lie in, or if I nose under a fence and head to my neighbor’s corncrib, I’ll probably find corn. Somebody once told me pigs are intelligent. Like us, they know what they want, what they have to do to get it, and they go rooting for it.
“Want, want, want,” my mother said and shook her finger at me. “You need to get your want-er fixed.” Her eyes gleamed a warning when she said it. It felt like a threat because it was. If I didn’t fix my want-er she was going to help me fix it, and that would not have been my favorite experience of the day. Now that I’m older, I know she was right. Fixing what I want is on me.
Maybe Mother meant, “Fix your heart, Brenda.” The writer of Proverbs says out of our hearts are the issues of life (4:23). Or maybe she meant fix my mind. Paul says renew our minds, by which he means overhaul, rebuild, or remake our mind-set, our way of thinking and acting (Philippians 3:19). Maybe Mother meant both because I’ve come to understand that when I am dealing with me—my problems or my sins—I usually have to deal with both my feelings and my thinking.
Our wants and our want-to’s are inextricably entangled, like rats in our hair, an expression we had in Neptune, Tennessee, where I was raised. “You’ve got rats. It’s all matted up,” Mother would say, about the snarls in my thick curls. I had to comb or brush them out gingerly or work them out with my fingers. Rats happened when I hadn’t tended well to my hair the day before.
Discontentment happens, too, when we don’t tend to our wants ahead of time. I know from personal experience. Wants snarl and entangle, mess me up, if I zero in too much on possessions, affections, status, wealth—all that rickety stuff I can’t count on for long. When I don’t walk with Jesus and follow His promptings, those things I’ve run after disappear or tumble down or don’t measure up after all. When I yearn and plot, roar and clamor, I often thwart the very things I really want: peace, satisfaction, and holy pleasure.
Franz Delitzsche reminds us that Solomon in his baffling Ecclesiastes concluded that God Himself is the source of our highest happiness. Yet, Solomon failed to steadfastly cling to that source. No other book of the Bible shows the pushes and pulls of yearnings and discontent as much as Ecclesiastes. Solomon, that great and wise man, admitted he had not stayed the God-directed course, so, in the end, disillusionment and misery overcame him. As Delitzsche said, “Everything had its ‘but’” for the man who knew, and saw, and had it all. Solomon’s “spiritual lapse” did him in, and it will us, as Robert Picirilli has said.
In my search for the right word, I found myself back in Philippians 4 with Paul’s words so familiar they become almost cliché. Rejoice always. Don’t worry; God will supply. I can do all things through Christ, and on and on. I confess this familiarity makes it hard to absorb and apply Paul’s instruction in a fresh way. You may know what I mean. But at 4:11, I came to a verb I had forgotten or pushed aside: “I have learned to be content.” That’s the word I need. Learn to be content.
The kind of learning Paul describes is both an art and a craft. By art, I mean using my creative, imaginative, and inventive powers. Our prayer, for example, which Paul admonishes, is turned Godward as communion and fellowship with the Creator, the inventor of all. He is the ultimate, imaginative, one true God, who devised and created us in His image and after His likeness. He dreamed us up and formed us, giving us the ability to think, imagine, invent. In gratitude—that great antidote to discontentment—we explore His goodness in prayer. We relish Him and the works of His hands. We thank Him. We let our hearts and minds soar with praise and devotion, as the Holy Spirit prompts and guides. With buoyant feeling and thinking hearts and minds, we tell Him our needs and ask for His help. We learn of Him, study, mull, and come to know Him, enjoy him, meditate on His attributes and His actions toward us.
What about the craft of learning contentment? Craft is about doing, and a first step is to abjure comparison in order to avoid discontentment. British poet Alexander Pope said in the early 1700s: “All looks yellow to a jaundiced eye that habitually compares everything to something better.” Contentment often evaporates when we compare ourselves to others and their circumstances. Comparison also triggers dissatisfaction and grumbling. Remember the Hebrews in the wilderness? There were no cucumbers and leeks as there had been in Egypt. Their leader was incompetent and did long disappearing acts. Desert life offered little to compare to the green and verdant land of Goshen. The earth opened up and swallowed friends and relatives. A golden calf seemed preferable to the thunder-and-lightning God on the mountain.
Discontent is sometimes about my brother in the faith. Remember Peter’s question to Jesus during their fish breakfast on the shore? What about John? What do you want him to do? Like Peter, I might wonder why Joe Blow is greatly loved and I am not. Why I am suffering and Sally Sue is not. I might murmur: why can’t I go, do, be, think, succeed, have power or influence like she does? Discontent brought on by comparison wears a coat of many colors and designs, and one size never fits all.
What can I do about comparison? Renounce it through gratitude. Be creative. Replacement works. Paint over the first image and draw a new one. Mix in gladness, melody, and praise. Or, as Philippians 4:8 says, exchange your old ponderings for new ones: meditate on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and good. Dwell on what is worthy. Commune with God. Thank Him.
How else can craft help us learn contentment? We must engage our cerebral and practical side, our doing. Craft is about expertise, know-how, and gaining proficiency by practice. I learn contentment as I practice doing it. In Philippians 4, Paul said he learned to be content by living the highs and lows of his life, riding the waves of plenty and hunger, enduring the fluctuations of abundance and need (4:11-12). By walking purposefully, with head engaged and heart right through these variations, we learn to become content. It’s experiential and practical. It’s the craft of doing life through God as our source and our strength (4:13). And we practice what we’ve learned, received, heard, and seen (4:9). That requires a mind-set, a willful and purposeful doing of what we know to do. Practice engages all of who we are in the school of life: mind, will, affections.
May we not look with a jaundiced eye. May we pray and practice. By art and by craft, may we learn contentment.
About the Writer: Brenda Evans is a retired English teacher. She and her husband Bill live in Ashland, Kentucky. They are proud grandparents of seven.