Back when I was in undergraduate school, after we had solved all the problems of the world over lunch, several of us had quasi-serious discussions about which book we would memorize if books were banned a la Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I had no trouble at all deciding on which one; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It has been a favorite of mine for a long time and I still go back and re-read it every few years.
I do have my issues with Jane. I was thoroughly disgusted with her for abandoning Rochester the way she did, but I eventually gave her a pass on that, partly because she did eventually return and partly because of the mores of the time. I preferred to think that she would have behaved differently if she lived later than the 19th century. In my latest re-reading of the book, however, I came across something that made me want to shake her until her teeth rattled. When little Adele asks her if they will be happy, she replies that they will work hard and be content. What the...? What an insipid thing to say to the child! I was outraged! I was livid! I know, I know, over-reaction. Acknowledging that it had more to do with me than with what Ms. Bronte wrote in her book, I gave it some thought.
I found dozens of quotes advocating contentment as a noble goal for life and I even agreed with a few. The quotations that cautioned about wanting more and more things seemed to parallel my views. I've never been inclined to focus on the acquisition of things. It always seemed like it took too much effort away from other things that I was interested in. But the other quotes annoyed me. They generally came from religious or political sources and they seemed to attribute a high sense of virtue to contentment that I simply cannot see. It was as if they were promoting contentment as the opiate of the masses.
To my mind, this sort of contentment equals settling for less. Jane offered Adele contentment as a goal and not the happiness that she desired. It is true that neither Adele nor anyone else has a guarantee of each and every happiness they desire. But by eliminating the possibility of reaching for some of the more important, life-enhancing things that are available, it seems to me that even contentment is not possible. Contentment may end up being the end result, but as an all encompassing goal, it seems terribly inadequate.
It also seems as though it requires a certain amount of self-deception a la the fox in Aesop's fable. The fox wanted the grapes and tried everything he could think of to get them. When he failed, he walked away having decided that the grapes were probably sour and he didn't want them anyway. Our society reinforces this view on all sides. We tell others that what they wanted isn't worth it, or wouldn't make them happy, or that it is the wrong thing to want. When the fact of the matter is someone else simply doesn't know if it is worth it or not to you. And, at one time or another, most people agree and stop striving for whatever it is. The pressure is exerted to do what is 'acceptable' and 'reasonable' until we frequently relax into a vanilla pudding type of existence and give up on our fondest dreams, hopes and desires.
After having been a big fan of the vanilla pudding club when I was younger, I find that I've lost my taste for it entirely. Not only did I not reach for other flavors, I barely acknowledged their existence. And in that way, I committed what I consider to be the most unforgivable of sins; I wasted a lot of time and did not live my life. I don't plan on making the same mistakes in the future. I'll be trying every unusual flavor that crosses my path. I'll be reaching for every scrap of joy that life offers. And I'll be doing so without the overly excessive concern I had for society's approval that I had in my youth. I'll have to pick another book and heroine than Jane Eyre. She's been reduced to a cautionary tale for me. I'm going to be browsing on the adventure shelves for something else entirely.
"Be happy while you're living; for you're a long time dead." -- Scottish proverb
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