Where Contentment?

If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
labor-saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We are down to the last two chapters of the Tao Te Ching. We will devote today and tomorrow to how to be content. Then, we will begin again with chapter one, starting anew the journey.

Today, Lao Tzu offers us one way that we can be content. If our country is governed wisely, we will be content. The reverse is also true. If we are not content, it just may be that our country is not being governed wisely. But, having said that, I want to say this: If whether or not we are content is dependent on something outside ourselves, we are not likely to be content. True contentment is not to be found outside of ourselves. It has to be found inside of ourselves. It is a matter of the heart. Keep that in mind as we take a look, the next two days, at what true contentment might look like.

I say might, because Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, offers an idyllic picture (looking at the outside) of a country’s inhabitants expressing true contentment. To those of you who might say, “that may be your idyllic picture, it isn’t mine,” I say, “fine, but at least, take a moment to glean the inner attitude that is producing this outward picture.” Then, you can come up with your own idyllic picture.

Every time I read through today’s chapter, I can’t help but think of Tolkien’s Shire. It reads like a Hobbit’s life to me. And I would be very content with a Hobbit’s life.

Give me a hole in the ground. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: give me a hobbit-hole, that means comfort. Simple hobbit folk content with their very ordinary lives. Hobbits certainly enjoy the labor of their hands; and, they wouldn’t be wasting their time inventing labor-saving devices. They dearly love their homes; so they aren’t interested in travel. At least that is the case with almost all of them. There was that one odd fellow that disappeared one day. He went on a rather preposterous adventure with a band of dwarves and a wizard to a lonely mountain far away; where he claims to have helped to slay a dragon. That one disappeared a lot after that. But he was always a little queer. Most of us hobbits are content to stay at home. Travel? Adventures? No, thank you. In the Shire, there are wagons and boats. But hobbits don’t use them to go anywhere. There is an arsenal of weapons. But we hope never to have to use them. Us, hobbits, well, we enjoy our food and take pleasure in being with our families. We spend weekends in our gardens and delight in the doings of the neighborhood. In the Shire, though the next country is so close we can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, we’d be content to die of old age without ever going to see it.

Yes, that would be my idyllic picture of true contentment. And I suppose that both Lao Tzu and J.R.R. Tolkien would be content with just that. Smoking my pipe while sitting outside in my garden… Wait, I am already doing just that. Not your idea of contentment? Don’t worry, I wasn’t foolish enough to think everyone wanted to be a hobbit, just like me. And I have no intentions of trying to force my Utopia off on you. It might be a Dystopia for you. I can respect that. Even if I don’t quite understand it.

And I don’t think that is what Lao Tzu is attempting to do with today’s chapter. Maybe you are wondering, what is so wrong with labor-saving devices? And, what is Lao Tzu’s problem with loving to travel? But, I fear that maybe we are missing Lao Tzu’s point. For, there is nothing wrong with labor-saving devices. Nor, is there any problem with loving to travel. The real question is, why aren’t you content? And, what is it going to take for you to be content?

Are your days and nights filled with restlessness, anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction with your present circumstances? Perhaps you don’t even know what you really want. You just know you want something else, something better. I am a libertarian, an anarchist. It is easy to blame discontent on how unwisely my country is being governed. And there is a correlation there. Lao Tzu said, if a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants would be content.

But we can’t depend on our government. Even the Shire needed scouring. And Lao Tzu doesn’t want us waiting around for our government to act wisely. He said “if” not “when”; so knowing the statistical improbability, I think we had better start depending on ourselves. Where is true contentment to be found, if we can’t expect to find it in our outward circumstances? We need to look deep within ourselves. That is where it is to be found. There is where we have everything we need. It is inherent in us. I didn’t always understand this. I thought I would need to build me a hobbit-hole. Wouldn’t be content without one. But, I can be content in my little house sitting on the ground. I have my little garden in my little back yard. I smoke my little pipe and enjoy my simple, ordinary life. And you can find your own contentment inside your own self, too.

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