Contentment and a wonderful day: a Holocaust lesson

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 12, 2007

On having a wonderful day, the topic of the past few columns, several of our coffee companions have pointed to contentment as a key factor – something I’ve been trying very hard to remember the past few days since my computer crashed and we’ve been struggling to recover files and addresses.

But contentment it is for this week, and I, too, will try to pay attention to these words.

Now, contentment is similar to happiness, but it is not happiness at any price. It’s possible to be happy when everything seems to be going your way, but will you be able to sleep well in view of how you manipulated things to get your way? We’ve all met those who say they will not be happy till they own this or that, or have this or that power or success, or have vanquished their enemy, etc. They may even abuse the idea of contentment by equating it with happiness, but they will never achieve true contentment, because there will always be more power or wealth to acquire, or more enemies to vanquish.

On the other hand, it’s possible to know contentment when things are not going well and you are anything but happy about them. Nevertheless, you experience an inner peace that flows from a heartfelt conviction about a grander scheme of things.

Such contentment is not to be confused with passivity, laziness or indifference, however, or with gleefulness at the suffering of others. The inner sense of wellbeing may, in fact, drive a person to heroic action in the face of suffering and injustice – the Mother Teresas of this world who, walking along gutters of dying humanity, extend hope and comfort to those in their shadow. And they achieve this, not by fretting over their limitations, but by going forth humbly with what they have at hand, which is often no more than their own outstretched hand itself.

Genuine contentedness has a lot to do with Providence, of course – of seeing the beneficent hand of God in human affairs. Here alone, it seems to me, is the one area in which we should not be contented: we should never satisfy our hearts’ deepest longings with anything less than God Himself, for in Him we have everything and more we could ever hope for.

The Dutch Holocaust martyr Etty Hillesum has been an important mentor to me in this regard as I have come to know her through her writings in Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.

Her contentment was certainly not found in material things. Under Nazi occupation of her homeland, the aspiring young Jewish writer was deprived of access to public transportation, her bicycle, the green grocers, and ultimately her freedom. But they couldn’t deprive her of her spirit, she declared.

“I have looked our destruction, our miserable end, which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye and accepted it into my life, and my love of life has not been diminished,” she wrote. “I am not bitter or rebellious, or in any way discouraged. I continue to grow from day to day, even with the likelihood of destruction staring me in the face. . . . I have come to terms with life.”

While in a concentration camp at the age of 29, her 1943 execution in Auschwitz drawing near, she wrote in her diary about her greatest lesson in life: the contentment that flowed from her hungering and thirsting for God alone:

“You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share out Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer. . . .

“Oh God, my life is one great dialogue with You. I may never become the great artist I would really like to be, but I am already secure in You, God. Sometimes I try my hand at turning out small profundities and uncertain short stories, but I always end up with just one single word: God. And that says everything, and there is no need for anything more. And all my creative powers are translated into inner dialogues with You. The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches.”

Thank you, Etty, for this valuable lesson in contentment. In my quest for a wonderful day, it makes my computer problems seem pretty insignificant.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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