EBS34: Constructive Discontentment
Eric Butterworth Speaks: Essays on Abundant Living #34
Delivered by Eric Butterworth on August 2, 1975
A paradox in life is that we are forever acting as if contentment were the summum bonum of all existence, the end toward which we ceaselessly bend our efforts and shape our struggles. We say, “Oh, I will be so happy when I retire, or when the children are raised and I do not have this continuous turmoil.” But on the other hand we seem to be biologically and psychologically unable to rest content even when the circumstances permit. There is always a hidden urge, a recurring restlessness .
No doubt many sermons are preached each year on Paul’s statement, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content.” If this is really what Paul meant, it is hard advice to follow. It seems that every time we approach a satisfied state, there is always something missing and the awareness of that something keeps us from total contentment.
One writer has said, “There is no such thing as contentment in the present tense. The most human beings can ever say is ‘I should have been happy then,’ when they look back on some glorious experience, or ‘I shall be happy when that happens,’ looking forward to some event in the future. But never are they able to say, ‘I am contented now,’ for life is not like that.”
The world is not really for contented people. There is too much to challenge each one of us, too much work to be done and too many changes to be made. And human nature isn’t designed for contentment, either. Even Paul showed in other passages how discontented he was with himself. He always seemed to goad himself on to new growth, new overcoming: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after that I may apprehend...I press on to the goal of the high calling of God.” Why then did Paul say, “I have learned...therein to be content?” A search of the root meaning of the word “content” reveals the idea, “to be enough, to be self-sufficient.” The word “contentment” throws us off the trail because of its implications of complacency...and Paul was anything but complacent. The real meaning is that “I have learned, no matter what the experience or challenge, that I am sufficient and confident. I can deal with it through the infinite power of God who strengthens me.”
This is a vital point for creative living. “Wherever I am, there will I be. I am a whole person. I will not cop out. I will stand and meet the experiences of life head-on, but in the awareness of my all-sufficiency.” This is a far cry from the kind of contentment that the word may normally imply.
Discontent is a built-in fibre of mankind that may well be the most distinguishing characteristic of man and the very reason for the advance and progress of the world since primitive times. DeNouy, in his book, Human Destiny, says that the obvious cause of evolution was the inability of the forerunners of man to adapt to their environment. So it is not by chance that man has become the highest form of creation. The quality of discontent is a part of the divine urge toward perfection.
Two passages from Emerson drive home this point: “God offers to every mind the choice between Truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both.” He also wrote, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there hope for them.”
Jesus knew that the way to happiness was not through satiation and that satisfaction and contentment are never found at the end of the road. He knew that man could only be happy when he was progressing in the right direction. When He said,
“I came not to send peace but a sword,” he had in mind something like this: “I came not to make you contented with yourself, but discontented. That is your sacred obligation. Never forget that life is a growing experience and that you are a growing creature. Life is dynamic, not static. No static experience can bring happiness or peace.”
Jesus came to change men, to make them realize their divine sonship. But he knew that to change men you first had to make them dissatisfied with themselves, and with the lives they were living. He came to urge them forward, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
To keep on track, there is a kind of mental inertia that must be overcome. There are human tendencies which some consider the work of the Devil, but actually the Devil is no more than a symbol of the inertial forces that pull us back. The “temptor” of human consciousness is forever saying, “Slow down, take it easy, why go forward when it’s so much easier to sit back and enjoy yourself?”
Perhaps the same temptor spoke to Edison after several hundred unsuccessful attempts to find the right filament for the electric lamp, urging him to give up. His discontent drove him forward until he achieved...contentment? No. He felt satisfaction in that one result but soon he was looking for new fields to conquer.
Of course we might end this discussion here. But then you might think that there is a man at Unity who tells you that we should all be dissatisfied and discontent. You might remind me that you’re surrounded by many who are always complaining about things and grumbling because things are never the way they should be. Isn’t that a different kind of discontent?
Let’s listen to Gordon Graham:
“There are two kinds of discontent in the world: the discontent that works, and the discontent that wrings its hands. The first gets what it wants, and the second loses what it has. There’s no cure for the first but success, and there is no cure at all for the second.”
So, discontent, when humanly expressed, becomes petty, mean, and complaining. On a deeper level, constructive discontent becomes a part of the plan for unfoldment of the seed of your innate self. Jesus taught that the latter was actually the divine urge in man, the result of our intuitively perceived vision of what we might be. You will always have divine discontent, but you will be loving, patient, and always perceptive of better things.
The greatest, happiest, and most successful people in the history of the world have been aware of this. Van Loon tells of it in his book, The Arts:
“Michelangelo’s greatness lay in his divine discontent—not with others but with himself. Like all the great of this earth, like Beethoven and Rembrandt and Goya and Johan Sebastian Bach, he was of such mighty stature that he knew the meaning of the word ‘perfection’. And like Moses, glancing longingly at the dim and hazy outlines of the Promised Land, he realized that it will never be given to any of us mere mortals to reach that which cannot possibly be surpassed. Hence that divine discontent, which is not only the beginning of all wisdom, but also the beginning and end of all great art.” Van Loon might have added, “...and all great living.”
Jesus gave us the motto for the pilgrim of the “Way”: “Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Just as Paul really caught the spirit of those words, so can each one of us. And then we can say with him: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but...I press on toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.”
Human laziness may want to sit by and say, “Well, I have gone about as far as I can go.” But creative discontent which is innate within every person will come forth within every one of us as an urge saying, “I must keep on.” I must stay alive as long as I live. I must continue to work and grow through my work. I must reach a little higher and use more of my potential.
Something within us will keep us forever discontent. That something is the very creative process of the infinite within. Don’t ever think of this as an evil force or a reflection on your inability to cope with your environment. Creative discontent is the activity of God leading you on in the fulfillment of “Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”
© 1975, by Eric Butterworth