Discontent is a two-edged sword

Each year the Gallup organization polls people from 120 countries around the world to find out if they are satisfied with the freedom they have to choose what to do with their lives. In 2006, the U.S. ranked as one of the most contented nations in the world in that regard. In 2013, it did not even make the top 25 percent.

Americans are increasingly discontent. They are discontent with their freedom to choose what to do with their lives, with the politicians running for office, with the Supreme Court (only 18 percent of Republicans approve of the court), and with Congress (an all-time low approval rating last year of 14 percent).

One wonders if this increasing level of discontent among Americans is a bad thing. Or, to put it more generally, is discontent necessarily evil? The answer depends on who you ask.

The Dalai Lama has said, “When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied.” Benjamin Franklin, speaking along similar lines, said: “Content makes poor men rich; discontent makes rich men poor.”

But not everyone sees discontent as an evil. Thomas Edison said, “Discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.” Florence Nightingale agreed: “Were there none who were discontent with what they have, the world would never reach anything better.”

Perhaps a more nuanced view of discontent is in order. In and of itself, it is neither evil nor good. When it motivates a person to positive change, it serves a good purpose, but if it leaves a person wringing his or her hands or demeaning the neighbors, it promotes evil. Discontent is a two-edged sword.

Everyone experiences discontentment. The Bedouin is discontent with the speed of his camel. The commuter is discontent with the speed limit on the bypass. The gourmand is discontent with the freshness of the basil in his potato gnocchi. Discontent is universal. It’s what a person does with it that makes all the difference.

Discontent is a playground for temptation. An unhappy husband may be tempted to think he would be content with another woman. The discontented employee decides to give less effort to his work. The discontented citizen complains that he’s been denied opportunity and so feels justified in lying about his income on his 1040 form.

But discontent is also a playground for creativity and cooperation. Perhaps Alexander Graham Bell was weary of going to the next room for Mr. Watson’s assistance; discontent gave us telecommunications. Discontent leads husbands and wives to new levels of intimacy and companies to new levels of productivity. And every great piece of music is birthed in discontent. The composer is discontent until he gets the song in his soul out and into the world.

Both edges of discontent are apparent in the spiritual life as well. Discontent can move a person toward God in faith and toward others in community, but that doesn’t automatically happen. When the great Old Testament prophet Elijah was agonizingly discontent, he moved away from God and from others and entered into despair. Likewise, in a moment of profound discontent, even Moses forgot about God and berated his community.

But the biblical record is full of examples of men and women who turned to God in their discontent and, as a result, made great advances in their spiritual lives. Psalm 73 is a case study in the way to use discontent to grow spiritually and move toward God. Discontent moved the prophet Habakkuk to a level of faith he had never before realized.

St. Paul wrote that he had “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” Perhaps the secret he learned is that discontent always leads to contentment, when it leads to God—and he was content with that.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/18/2015

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