03/11/2013 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Winter of Our Discontents


That's Shakespeare.

Sigmund Freud wrote of "Civilization and Its Discontents."

I could write about people and their malcontents. I'd start with my own.

But they're everywhere, are they not?

My wife and I shared a Valentine's dinner at the English Grill in the historic Brown Hotel. Hardly a second-rate eating establishment. In fact, one of the nicer places in our community. Darkened oak and cherry walls create the warm ambiance for romantics like us. Tables covered with thick, white cloths made the red roses draped across them all the brighter and more beautiful. Perfect dishes could please even the discriminating tastes of Giada De Laurentiis.

It was the quintessential evening of Valentine contentment.

That is, until this ostentatious and well-to-do couple sat down at the table beside us. From the moment they took possession of their seats, it was as if they took center stage for a performance of their personal version of "The Winter of Our Discontents." Their performance would have earned them an Oscar.

Nothing was right. The room was too cold. Then, it was too hot. The music too loud; then not loud enough. The menu was new; they preferred the old.

Ever noticed how some folks in this country resent the "lazy" lower classes, as they would describe them, whom they regard as society's "leeches," those who live as if they're entitled to their entitlements?

I wondered if this couple were those folks. Some of the "uppers" who resent the "lowers," that is.

I suppose what bothers me more are the well-off in this country, many of whom believe they're entitled to being treated differently, even pampered. After all, they've earned respect, dignity, praise. They deserve all they can get of your attention and mine. After all, they're the "job creators," the one's who risk their own privilege to lift you a little closer to their place of preferential treatment. They remind me of those people I used to have in some of my churches who pranced around with the attitude, "Lord, I don't know how this church would operate without me!"

I felt like Pam and I were sitting beside this couple. In their enlightened opinion, the waiter's enthusiasm in serving them was some kind of repressed aggression on his part. So, before the evening ended, he was removed and the manager herself attempted to serve this discontented and impossible to please couple.

I only complain about what I see in others when I'm unaware of the similar actions and reactions within myself. In other words, there's a little "winter of discontent" in all of us, isn't there?

Saint Paul said, "I have learned in whatever state I am, therewith to be content" (Philippians 4:11).


A learned art? "I have learned ... to be content."

But how?

For most of my life, I have only ever been content when I achieved the object of some desire, whatever it was. A car, a contract, a compliment -- even a new cell phone. The list is endless. The feeling of contentment is, however, short lived.

If about the only time you feel happy -- content -- is when you're winning, you have not learned the secret of happiness. That's not a judgment. Just a fact.

You've only ever learned the secret to happiness when you're content even when the "content" is missing.

So, what's the secret of contentment when there is no "content" OR when the "content" is the source of discontent?

The only thing that's ever worked for me is to practice accepting what is -- by which I mean, learning to live INTO the situation you face.

When you resist what is, you suffer. You become insufferable, too.

Do not misunderstand, however. I'm not suggesting some passive acceptance of what is. There are many unacceptable situations we face. The restaurant may serve you soup that's too cool or too hot or an appetizer prepared without care. There's nothing wrong with saying to the server, "My soup is cold. Would you warm it up?"

It is quite another thing to say, however, "How dare you serve me cold soup!"

That's the ego in you. The "little you" reacting to a little discomfort it loves to make into a big discontent.

This is the cause of much unhappiness. In you. In me. It's the reason you find yourself going through life mostly bitching because life seldom seems to cooperate with you -- to flow with your preferred and deserved agenda.

Why not practice accepting what is instead? Of living "into" whatever your life situation IS at this present moment? Why don't you see if this does not enable you to change the situation for the better, if this does not give you the capacity to be content within it, even to know peace through it?

It was the Buddha who said, "Contentment is the highest wealth." Which probably explains why -- with what people in our culture seek most today -- we have become, among all nations, the richest in discontent.