Many religions, much of psychology, and a sizable chunk of the self-help literature give put great importance on achieving contentment. The eminently sensible idea is that in an uncertain world, the only sure way to be happy is to learn to accept the way things are, here and now.
An almost equally great number of thinkers, teachers, and sages have said that rather than meekly acquiescingto an unsatisfactory situation, we should make every effort to remove or overcome those obstacles which hinder us from achieving our full potential for happiness. The idea being that we should take responsibility for our own well-being, rather than being doormats to fate and to the desires of others. This, too, seems like wise advice.
Both teachings can be taken to extremes. Some advocate total detachment from the experiences and passions of life until light and dark, pain and pleasure, hunger and fullness are all one. Others urge us to pursue total self-gratification, at the expense of all those around us.
Obviously, these two principles are not necessarily contradictory. The “Serenity Prayer” famously outlines a balance between the two poles:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference
This is only one of many possible compromises. The dichotomy here is really one of internal vs. external change – do we alter our environment to suit us, or do we alter ourselves to make us amenable to the environment? If we take the latter course, our latitude is virtually limitless. With sufficient conditioning we can find contentment, even happiness, in almost any situation. But at what point do we lose that which makes us unique in order to mold ourselves to conditions? It is true, as the song says, that we can find “happiness in slavery” – but is it worth it if we compromise our very selves in order to do so? I would say not. Clearly a balance must be struck; but we must be mindful of the danger of swinging too far in the opposite direction. There is a potentially infinite number of external factors which we might find incompatible with our perfect satisfaction. Without drawing the line somewhere, we risk being perpetually bedeviled by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, wiling away our years bitching on LJ about every little thing which disturbs our calm.
But where to draw that line? The verse I quoted above sounds good in theory, but in practice I doubt changing everything I can just because I can would lead to bliss. What should be borne and what should be overcome? Where do we draw the line between petty complaints and legitimate causes for action – action which may lead to others being discomfited or hurt? In the grey area between the two poles, what divides a petty irritation from an obstacle to our leading a fully-realized life? What rules of thumb, if any, exist to help us make the distinction?