The Surprising Gift of Contentment

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All along, 2020 was full of surprises. I don’t need to tell you how terrible most of them were. But 2020 did give me one very surprising gift: contentment.

It’s something I’ve been searching for for so long, and I didn’t expect to find it hidden in this year, of all years.

I remember first feeling aware of my discontentment starting in college. I carried feelings of annoyance toward my current circumstances through singlehood (when I wanted to be married), through early marriage (when I wanted to be a mom), and through all my various career transitions and shifts (when nothing felt like a perfect fit). Then, when our family moved from Florida to the midwest in 2015, I left my job and became a stay-at-home mom. It was a hard transition from working full-time surrounded by friends and family to staying home and feeling very alone, and I struggled.

I spent so many days as a stay-at-home mom pining for what I didn’t have: interesting adult conversation, quiet alone time, a more flexible budget. I missed the productivity and accomplishment of my job. I thought about how easy and quick it would be to run an errand without buckling and unbuckling car seats, or how I might enjoy cooking if no one in my house was a picky eater. Along the way, my husband reminded me about how when I was working full-time, I cried about not being able to take my kids to storytime.

I’m cringing as I type this out now. I fully grasp the selfishness and ingratitude that lurks inside my heart. I was grateful, of course, and there were so many joyful moments. But I don’t think I understood contentment. I didn’t know it, but I think I was waiting for everything to be perfect, for annoyances to disappear, and for me to feel 110% certain I was in the right place, spending my time in the best possible ways.

My desires themselves were never bad. But I often allowed the want to cloud my vision and limit my joy. I trampled over gratitude with my unmet expectations, self-imposed and arbitrary timelines, and constant comparison to others.

In 2020, I learned I can find contentment even if things are not all as they should be. For years, I’ve been reading the passage in the Bible when Paul says, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” (Philippians 4:11b). Somehow, I thought he meant, “I’m ok with anything that happens.” But that wasn’t quite it. Contentment, it turns out, has so little to do with circumstances and much more to do with my inner reality. It doesn’t mean everything is ok or that bad things don’t affect me. It just means that somewhere, deep down, I can find peace and joy and presence even on less-than-ideal days.

This year’s limits turned out to be a gift to me. When I knew there was nowhere else to go or be, I could focus on being here. My attitude while at home with my kids changed. Fewer options were available to me—no coffee shops to linger in, no meandering walks through Target, no child care, no sending my kids off to school. I didn’t stop wishing for or wanting those things. (I mean, how amazing does a solo trip to peruse every single Homegoods aisle sound right now?!) But there was a subtle shift deep inside my heart, and my one option became the best and most desirable.

Nothing is perfect this year. I am not saying anyone should be grateful for the trials this year has brought, especially if you’ve endured job loss or the death of family members, or other instability. I desperately want to be able to send my kids to school safely and to see the friends and family we miss. I especially mourn the time my children have lost with their grandparents.

And yet. Contentment has been a surprising discovery, a grace I was suddenly able to access. I guess this is growth.

In 2020, home with my kids was the safest place to be. It was the best place for me and them: Home, with my people, staying safe, and protecting our neighbors. My doubt was erased at that moment, and I learned to be present. It’s as though with all other options removed, I was better able to see how good and nourishing my life at home could be.

Among the hard and the confusing and the terrible of 2020, I am grateful for the gift of contentment.

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