“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Seems like simple advice at a glance.
However, if on a closer read this quote appears somewhat paradoxical to you, that’s because it is.
Epicurus cautions us first to avoid desiring more than we have, as this is sure to spoil our happiness. He then adds that we must remember that our current circumstances, the ones we are supposed to be content with, exist because we previously desired more than we had… wait, what?
Which one is it, Epicurus?
Should we strive to be content with less, or strive to create more for ourselves?
This is a doozy of a question, and one that has been on my mind a lot lately.
I can’t blame Epicurus for his confusing prescription on the matter, either. It is a great balancing act, seeking contentment with our circumstances on the one hand, and seeking to fulfil our ambitions on the other.
But, how do you find the right balance?
Is it even possible?
Contentment, Ambition, and the Long Climb.
You’re walking on a trail with no end. It slopes gently upward as far as you can see. Hiking up the trail takes some effort, it’s all uphill, but with every successive step the world is just a little bit nicer. The colours become slightly brighter, the path below your feet, softer, the scent of the air, sweeter.
You come across another traveller, sitting on the side of the trail.
The stranger introduces himself as Contentment. Sitting with his back to the rising slope, he wears an easy smile, unconcerned with what lies ahead on the trail. Rather, he enjoys his time here, in this spot he chose, contemplating his surroundings and politely greeting the travellers that pass him by. He never feels compelled to follow them higher, he’s found the perfect spot to sit.
“You look tired, friend. Care to sit a while?”
It’s tempting. You are tired.
So, you look around for a place to rest. But as you start to sit down, you notice a nicer spot only a step away. You decide you’ll sit there instead, only as you approach this new spot you see that there is an even cozier spot just another step further. In fact, only two steps away there is a better spot still.
You find it hard to sit down, knowing that there is always a better spot to sit only a short step away.
By now you’ve already stumbled a few steps farther, and you decide that maybe you don’t want to sit after all. You’d rather continue on up the trail and see what you can see. You bid Contentment farewell.
After a minute or so, wiping the sweat from your brow, you look back down the trail to where Contentment is now no more than a tiny spot below you in the distance. Though he’s not made it as far up the trail as you, you can’t help but envy this peculiar traveller. How relaxing it must be to find the perfect place to sit. Lucky him.
Though, surely, you’ll find a nice spot up ahead.
A little farther on your journey you meet another traveller, only this time it is you who gets left behind. This new traveller hurries past at a frantic pace. He is moving too fast, and breathing too heavily to spare more than a word on you before he’s gone, rushing along up the trail. You’ve only caught his name: Ambition.
Ambition is not at all like the last traveller you passed. He is going places fast. He has no time to rest, and keeps his eyes set as far ahead as he can see. His journey looks painful and exhausting, but as he becomes a tiny speck far ahead, you can’t help but envy this equally peculiar traveller for the beautiful things that await him in the lush world ahead. Lucky him.
You carry on, as you were before, hiking alone on this endless slope. You contemplate the journey, and the two travellers you’ve met along the way.
You think of Contentment, sitting peacefully beside the trail. It wasn’t the prettiest spot on the trail – you’ve seen much better since – but you can’t forget his easy smile. He was truly happy there.
Wouldn’t it be incredible to feel that way?
You think of Ambition, soldiering on at a breakneck pace. How could you forget the wild look in his eyes – exhausted, but determined – eyes locked forward on the great distances he would cross.
Wouldn’t it be incredible to see the things those eyes would see?
You realize that you envy both of these travellers; each for a very different reason.
The first traveller, Contentment, you envy for the feeling of satisfaction and peace he so clearly enjoys. It’s a feeling you’ve never had, but that you know you want.
The second traveller, Ambition, you envy for the experiences that lie already behind him, let alone those that still await him. They are experiences you’ve never had, but that you know you want.
You want happiness and comfort, like the first, but you also want to travel far and experience much, like the second.
Sadly, you can’t sit and climb at the same time…
and there’s another thing…
You are running out of time.
I forgot to mention that you and every other traveller on this trail only have a certain amount of time to enjoy it. You don’t know how much time exactly, but you do know one thing for certain. Sooner or later, your time will run out. When it does, everything will be gone.
The trail will be gone. You will be gone.
This complicates things quite a bit, because anything you would like to do, or see, or have, or feel, you’d better do those things before the clock runs out.
Now, you could sit down to rest and enjoy the current scenery. It might not be so bad. In fact, the traveller you passed earlier, Contentment, seemed very happy doing just that.
But one thought scares you. The clock won’t stop just because you do. Catching your breath would probably feel very nice, but how can you sit there knowing there is a better spot to sit only a short step away. You would probably just wish you were sitting a little farther up the trail. And should you choose to resume hiking, you’d only have wasted precious time. Time you can’t get back. Besides, what had Contentment ever done with his life anyway?
No, decidedly, you cannot sit down like Contentment.
You remember the other traveller, Ambition, who sprinted past you before. The thought of running up this hill seems daunting. It would be very difficult, even painful, no doubt. But you remember the ticking clock, and it makes you wonder whether that pain would be worth it. After all, if you move fast now, you can spend more time relaxing higher up the slope, where the living is easier.
Then again, once you get there maybe you won’t want to relax… after all, you didn’t want to relax here, and it just gets better the higher you go. Maybe you should just keep moving, as fast as you can for as long as you can, trying to get as high as possible before the clock runs out. Otherwise you’ll never know what was up there.
But then you remember the face of Ambition as he sped past you on the trail. His eyes were sunken, exhausted. His breathing was taxed and heavy, and his face contorted in pain. Could you live like that all the way to the end? Do you really want to?
No, decidedly, you cannot race on like Ambition.
So, what should you do?
the clock is ticking…
You’re on your own on this one…
While I’d love nothing more than to offer you a definitive, and easy-to-apply solution for this dilemma, I’m afraid I don’t have one.
In fact, I struggle with this balance quite a bit, myself.
There is no question that I’m a very lucky person, and that life has been good to me. But, does that mean I can’t imagine it being just a little bit better? I can’t help but think of what it might be like to have what I have now, only with a little more freedom, or a little more pay, or a little more knowledge, or a little more this, or a little more that…
You get the picture.
The fact is, when looking at all the elements that make up our lives, it will always be possible to say, “This looks pretty good here… but, if I were to crank up that dial a little bit… or maybe this one here… well, that would be even better!”
It doesn’t make any difference what you, or I, or anyone has. It will always be true that certain aspects, or even all aspects could be a little bit better.
There is no end to the long climb.
Am I wrong, then, to want more, when what I have is good?
Should I focus, instead, on learning to be satisfied with the things I have?
What should I do?
What should you do?
You want to enjoy your life.
You also want to make something of your life.
So, which do you focus on more?
Should you work at mentally dropping certain goals so that you can spare yourself the dissatisfaction of not achieving them. Or should you defer your happiness into the future, temporarily feeling stress and dissatisfaction over the missing things, so that you stay motivated to achieve them?
What would it take to make you happy?
When is it OK to be happy with what you have?
When is it better to stay unhappy until you have more?
When should you choose Contentment over Ambition?
When should you choose Ambition over Contentment?
When, if ever, is it possible to pursue both equally?
The truth is, I don’t know the answers to all these questions, and even if I did, my answers might not be the same as yours, or be right for you.
There is probably no one-size-fits-all.
What I do know is that repeatedly reflecting on questions like these does help us to clarify our priorities, even if only temporarily. Your answers may change, as you and your circumstances change, so try to challenge yourself with these questions often.
Simply paying attention to where you currently sit in the balance between pursuing contentment and pursuing ambition will give you some insight as to how you’ve been setting your priorities. Maybe you will feel that you are perfectly on track, or maybe you will feel a need to make some adjustments.
Ultimately, how you choose to tackle the long climb from here is up to you…
Did you like the analogy of Contentment, Ambition, and the Long Climb? Is there anything you would add or change?
Analogies can be fun a way to try to make sense of complex problems, but of course they are always much more simple than the concepts they represent. If you can think of ways to challenge or change this analogy to make it more useful, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Your thoughts may be just the key ingredient that I, or some other reader of this blog, really need to hear.
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