At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Don't Let Bitterness Ruin Your Life

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. Another extension of that principle is that we should seek to take life as it is, better it where we can, and roll with the punches if and where we don't better it.

I'm worried that this idea is lost on a lot of folks today. As a private school teacher, I'm in the middle of Aristotle's great educational enterprise. What I've also found distressing over the years is the amount of increasing discontent and bitterness rising in the general population.

I don't think this is a simple "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality, although I wouldn't doubt there are some of those undercurrents afoot. Low-grade bitterness and discontent haven woven their way into the fabric of many souls I know.

Grades: A "C" used to be average. A "B", when I was in school, was evidence you'd done a good deal of work and understood the material at a high level. An "A" meant excellent proficiency. Now a number of my students beg me for extra credit so their final average can tick up from an A-minus to a full-blown A (note to all: I never give extra credit opportunities). Somewhere along the way people became dissatisfied with the evaluations they were getting. They bought into the lie that grades equal automatic success, or at least the opportunity for good college=good chances=good job=good life. Somewhere along the way, people started becoming more bitter about what they'd earned because they wanted--or felt more entitled to--more.

I've always enjoyed one scene of the movie School Ties because you get a proper whiff of contentment and proper perspective. Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon--students at the fictional St. Matthew's School--are reflecting on the mental breakdown of a classmate whose poor French grade might prevent him from getting into an Ivy League school. Damon even mentions that years ago, another student didn't get into the university of his choice and killed himself. Fraser, incredulous, says, "I sure want to get into Harvard, but I'll be damned if I kill myself if I don't."

Damon looks at Fraser and says, "I envy you...If you want something and if you get it, you deserve it, and if you don't, you'll manage."

Hence, the root of bitterness: The unwillingness to recognize that you can manage, the refusal to will yourself to be content.

By no means am I saying one should lack ambition. I've written several books and had one novel published. That takes ambition. But I force myself to reconcile the fact that if my writing never gets the publicity I want it to have, I still have a good life, a wonderful loving wife, and phenomenal children along with an enjoyable vocation. 

Some things don't work out, or at least they haven't worked out yet. I was having a conversation with a friend from Nashville yesterday; I hadn't seen her for years and then she and her husband dropped by my school for a half-hour since they were in town. Michelle asked me about our son Joshua's progress. And I found myself saying--in a rare moment of the Holy Spirit taking over my vocal cords, "Well, it'll be great if the research bears fruit and we get a treatment and cure in the coming years. We'd be fools not to welcome that. It'd be an amazing blessing. But then again, we've borne this matter for all of Joshua's life. We know the terrain, and if he's never healed, that's the path we have, and we'll manage. If Joshua is healed, it'll be wonderful, and God is good. And if Joshua never walks again, it'll be okay, and God will still be good."

And yet still we move on. If we acquire wealth, are blessed with health, or other positive, that's great. If not, God gets us by in the meantime nonetheless. This time of year, it's all the more appropriate to keep I Timothy 6:6-8 in mind.

"But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content."

Bitterness and discontent can only shred your soul and tear at the fabric of a life that--while perhaps not as ideal as you'd like it--is much better than the millions on this planet who live in abject poverty and want.

Don't let bitterness ruin your life. You brought nothing into this world, and you can't take a thing out of it. Contentment counts for so much more.

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