How you pronounce the word in your head as you read will determine the definition you infer.
in a state of peaceful happiness.
satisfied with a certain level of achievement, good fortune, etc., and not wishing for more.
the things that are held or included in something.
the amount of a particular constituent occurring in a substance.
In my brief word study, I learned they both come from the same medieval Latin root word, continere, which breaks down into “to hold together.” To be content with life, then, is to have some sense of the things it holds that matter and, perhaps, some sense of what we have to learn to accept. The last part of that sentence reminds me of one of my father’s maxims: you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem is something you can solve; a predicament is something you have to learn to live with.
In both churches where Terry and I played and sang together over the last couple of weeks, I had people come up and tell me how perfectly the song fit my voice. It felt good singing it—but here’s the deal: it was lower than I am used to singing. I have been a tenor all of my life. I find great joy in singing the high harmony parts. I hear those parts first in both my head and my heart. I like the air up there. I sang the song in D because the song was called “Prayer in Open D” and discovered I a new home for my voice. My tenor days may be numbered. I will have to learn to be content with being a baritone, have to learn to listen for new harmony lines and let someone else take to the skies. It is not a drastic change, but it calls me to change how I think about me and how I relate to the world. If my voice is moving down the scale, how do I do the work to find my voice and, as the definition says, not wish for more?
When I first started my Clinical Pastoral Education training at Baylor Medical Center in the fall of 1981, there was a little boy on the oncology ward who had bone cancer in his right arm, which was his dominant arm. The day they told him they were going to have to amputate his arm he began eating with his left hand. He saw how life was going to be—the predicament at hand—and he began to learn to live with it. The adjustments in my life pale by comparison, but the spirit of his approach to life is worth emulating.
Writing that sentence brings me face to face with the difference between contentment and resignation. To be content—to not wish for more—is not to say, “I guess this is all there is.” Resignation seems laced with despair; to be content is to be shot trough with gratitude. To go back to the song, to sing a different part is still to sing harmony; to change the key is to sing it where it fits my voice. What matters most of all is to keep singing.
One of the hymns of my heart is James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life.” The first two verses say
the secret of life
is enjoying the passage of time.
any fool can do it,
there ain’t nothing to it.
nobody knows how we got
to the top of the hill.
but since we’re on our way down,
we might as well enjoy the ride.
the secret of love
is in opening up your heart.
it’s okay to feel afraid,
but don’t let that stand in your way.
’cause anyone knows
that love is the only road.
and since we’re only here for a while,
might as well show some style.
give us a smile.
isn’t it a lovely ride?
sliding down, gliding down,
try not to try too hard,
it’s just a lovely ride.
Sing along, my friends. This is as good as it gets.