A while ago I was puzzling over the oddness of having contentment be a form of discomfort. As with a lot of things, this dynamic has roots both in the twisted human psychology and plain old daily life.
I have strong attractions to specific things, and I imagine that was true of me as a kid. I’m drawn to things I like and love and savor, and the flip side, I reject – sometimes vehemently – things that offend my sensibilities. I love simple, interesting, quirky, beautiful, odd things. I like shapes. I get bored by boring things and I despise ugly things and places. I know, doesn’t everyone? Probably, but I managed to suppress my rejection of these things, I think because it didn’t seem permissible. You accepted what you got, and you didn’t have any power to change things — this went for kids but also for adults (as far as I can tell).
My mom was of the opinion (again, as far as I can tell) that one must not be attached to the things one wants. Don’t wander very far toward your passions. Accept what’s served up. Everyone else does. Who do you think you are, someone special? The world doesn’t owe you anything, and you’ll probably just get disappointed if you go for what you want.
Have you ever been called selfish when you want things your way? I actually never was, directly. But I heard hours of her criticisms of other people, enough to know how she felt about folks sticking to their guns and marching to their own banjos.
Why did she feel that way? I’m guessing that it was because the desired thing could so easily be taken away from you, and for some reason that fact (whether threat or reality) was the freakin’ end of the world. It was very charged for her. (I feel like it had to have come from her parents’ or grandparents’ experiences in a world where immigrants and farmers, and immigrant farmers, didn’t have a very attractive set of options.) She was thus vigilant with her children to make sure they didn’t dream too big. To hope or actually strive toward some personal passion, if it was outside the working-class, we’re-nobodies-and-they-are-the-only-ones-who-can-impact-the-world norm, spelled great danger.
I got good at dousing my ideas and quirky passions before they could get very visible. Though a lot did slip through. I developed a consistent internal reaction against quirky blissfulness, because to my mother it signaled the dreaded self-centeredness. Which would soon be followed by the even more dreaded self-satisfied look on the face. I have decades of experience avoiding contentment in order to avoid accusations of being self-satisfied. (This came through in a friend’s family as warnings against being too big for your britches.)
The problem with that is that avoiding looking self-satisfied means avoiding contentment.
What I just typed out in 614 words took me many years to figure out, because on the surface I look a lot like a person who follows her passions. People seem to see me that way. It is true that I called the bluff on that “don’t dream too big” BS, but it wasn’t without a high cost. I walked off and did my own thing (for some years in my 20s in Latin America, far from my mother and her repressed church-lady crowd). On the surface I appeared to disregard the message that I was nobody and should stick close to the rules drafted by Those People Who Are Smarter Than Us (that one is a direct quote by mom). But since I was doing my own thing at great risk of alienating the “universe” (in those deep psychological terms that we carry with us forever), it was not simple. I carried with me internal reactions against my own passions and desires. I developed my preferred ways of interrupting my thoughts and emotions, tripping myself up, blocking my feelings, struggling to live around the edges of this inner dysfunction.
Whenever contentment appeared, it was immediately seen as a threat by the passive Norwegian voices inside my head, and consequently attacked. Attacks are horribly uncomfortable – contentment to a large degree, therefore, to me, means discomfort.
This… is a sobriety blog, and I will have some things to say about the role I gave alcohol in dousing my contentment. Stay tuned and have a great weekend!