Struggling to be Content


I often imagine that people exist on a metaphorical barbell⁠. On one side is drive and passion and on the other side is ease and contentment⁠. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is whether or not it’s problematic to tilt too strongly to one side.

Personally, I’ve gotten better at contentment. And yet I’m embarrassed to admit it’s still a lot easier for me to feel content when I’ve already done something in service of growth. Getting in a good workout. Writing part of a column. Even something as trivial as crafting a thoughtful tweet. Once that’s out of the way, I have a much easier time “just being” the rest of the day.

Framing this in a positive light, it’s an impulse to create. Framing it in negative light, it’s existential insecurity manifesting in the need to do something⁠—anything⁠—that feels like it matters. But then again, maybe these two aren’t quite opposites. Maybe the impulse to create is merely a coping mechanism for existential insecurity. Or, put more inspirationally, maybe the fact that we have limited time here is a blessing⁠—the very thing that compels us to create.

All of this leads me to my next question: What if drive and contentment aren’t antithetical? What if it’s possible to be content while doing something? What if the metaphorical barbell I opened with is the wrong framework altogether?

Being and doing are often perceived as opposites. But perhaps this is only for the kind of doing that stems from compulsion; or the kind of doing that is pointed toward something that doesn’t align with who you really are. What if there’s another kind of doing that isn’t separate from being, but actually one in the same with it? Might this be a pathway for feeling content whiledoing?

The ancient Greeks certainly thought so. They called what I’m pointing toward arete, a type of excellence that was also morally virtuous. Arete blossoms, so the Greeks said, when someone is fully absorbed in what they were doing⁠—and when what they are doing is an expression of their full potential, of their full being.

Thousands of years later, in his seminal work To Have or To Be, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote about what he called productive activity, or “producing something and remaining related to what I produce; my activity is a manifestation of my powers, and I and my activity and the result of my activity are one.” Fromm goes on to write that “activity is ‘wholesome’ only when it is rooted in and expresses the ultimate ethical and spiritual demands. For this reason busyness⁠—i.e., activity separated from one’s spiritual ground⁠—is to be rejected.”

And herein lies the paradox: perhaps contentment and drive, being and doing, aren’t really opposites afterall. If your drive is energy to express full potential than perhaps there is no better way to be content than expressing it. If your doing is wholesome than it becomes one in the same with your being.

The trap, of course, is that it is easy to convince yourself that your drive and doing is wholesome and productive when it’s really about compulsion and external validation. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to what is driving you and to be intentional about creating space outside the everyday ecosystem of compulsion and external validation to reflect on this. It is in this space—friendship, nature, reading, movement, meditation, art, etc.—that you can more fully get in touch with who you really are and what really matters to you.

You (and me, and everyone) need to regularly inhabit these kinds of spaces. If you don’t, your drive will probably seem opposite to your contentment, and your doing opposite to your being. The more you do inhabit them, however, the more integrated you become. And the less dualistic these concepts—drive and contentment, being and doing—start to feel.

— Brad

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