At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.
Gustave Flaubert, from Madame Bovary
A sad passage from a sad book.
It seems to me that too many people live their lives waiting for some sail to appear on the horizon. Some are truly trapped in situations of despair, with no way out. That is a tragedy. But many are, like Flaubert’s character, suffering primarily from chronic discontent. Too many of us are so obsessed with what we thinking we’re missing out on, that we miss the opportunity to have a peaceful contented life with what we have. The Madame Bovarys of our time need to shake the clouds from their heads and recognize the blessings that surround them.
These days we are constantly bombarded with images and messages designed to make us discontent. But the story of Madame Bovary is evidence that chronic discontent doesn’t depend upon the existence of television or the internet.
Discontent can sometimes be a good thing. We should be discontent with injustice, for example. But it seems to me that our society is plagued by discontent with our material possessions and status. No matter how much we have, we tend to imagine that we don’t have enough and that if only we had more, then we’d be happy.
I realize that our economic system depends upon discontent for its existence. If a wave of contentment swept over us, and we all suddenly became satisfied with what we have instead of constantly craving more, then our economic system would collapse. And that, to my way of thinking, would be good riddance.
So may we increasingly reject culture’s sales pitch. May we choose not to live our lives as debtors, mortgaging our freedom in exchange for junk we don’t need and that won’t make us happier. May we lose any desire for status and wealth. Instead of coveting the things the system is trying to sell us, may we start laughing at the foolishness of them.
Let’s stop waiting for a sail to appear on the horizon. Let’s start building our own boat.