A great loss and the secret to contentment

After my father died we were sorting through his papers and found a stock certificate for 100 worthless shares. They were all that was left of what had once been his retirement plan.

By Fred Smith

He had worked for the company for years when he was young and had such confidence in the leadership that he put virtually everything he had in the stock. All his plans for retirement were based on his belief in that single corporation. For a time it was well-placed trust, and the value soared. Then the leadership changed, the value evaporated, and Dad was left with a future that was nothing like what he had planned. I vaguely remember that period because it was about the time he started using the phrase from Oswald Chambers, “Sit loose to things.”

I’ve been thinking about that and reading Paul’s declaration in Philippians that he had found the “secret of being content in any and every situation,  whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” It’s not resignation or giving up. It is, in a sense, saying that no matter my circumstances I can do everything God has in mind for this time of my life. Sometimes that purpose is better served by being in want and other times by having plenty.

The more we have, the greater is the fear of losing it. The more we have, the more our identity is wrapped up in it.

Contentment has been elusive for many of us. In fact, it may be more of us feel as Thomas Edison did about it: “Restlessness is discontent – and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man – and I will show you a failure.”

Americans have never been naturally contented people. Alexis DeTocqueville visited our country in the 19th century and wrote this then, and it is probably as true now:

A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach, that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret inquietude which the actions of the Americans betray, and of that inconstancy of which they afford fresh examples every day.

He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach it, to grasp it, and to enjoy it. The recollection of the brevity of life is a constant spur to him. Besides the good things which he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode.

The more we have, the greater is the fear of losing it. The more we have, the more our identity is wrapped up in it. I have a friend very close to losing enough to move his family from very rich back to working class and in some ways that may be harder than losing it all.  He’ll lose things that have come to define him and that “secret inquietude” will become even louder in his head.

He has discovered the truth of what C. S. Lewis’ devil character – Screwtape – wrote, “Prosperity knits a man to the world.  He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”

For my father, as bad as losing his investment was, that disaster was also the beginning of the most productive period of his life. He and my mother moved to Texas and started a new business. He began to write books and spend more time with people as a mentor.  In fact, over the next 20 years he made his most valuable contributions to the lives of others. That would never have been possible without the experience of his loss. He found what Paul called contentment and trust.  

Maybe sitting loose to things is the antidote to that secret inquietude Paul overcame so long before.

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