The Curse of Contentment

Most of us have much to be thankful for. We have been taught to count our blessings, to delight in the ‘little things’ in life. And probably that state of contentment is the best way to go on with our daily routine without being maddened by a constant pursuit of something which is elusive. But is the emphasis on learning to be content with our lot holding humanity back? To accept the bondage of circumstances is alien to human nature. If we had been content with merely escaping being eaten by lions, we never would have left our caves to create marvels of science, art, music and poetry which are the children of hungry minds and not hungry stomachs. But we are being conditioned to lose our restlessness. Maybe it is a product of history, culture and spirituality and undoubtedly it has its uses. Society as a unit cannot be in a state of constant flux. But what about the individual? Is it desirable for the individual to be quietly resigned to the world as it is without giving any thought to the world as it ought to be?  Or at a simpler level, must not the individual question his own life at the very least?

The question of what is ‘the good life’ has been asked almost in all cultures and through the ages it has been answered in different ways by different societies. While there cannot be an answer that is universally acceptable, the foundation upon which the human enterprise of seeking out the good life must stand upon would be common. To be able to debate upon the purpose of existence one must be in a position to have the leisure and means to exercise reason to determine one’s own raison d’etre. This opportunity to exercise reason is the common foundation upon which humankind must build its citadels of thought. It is a simple assertion that as long as a person is preoccupied with ensuring her and her dependants’ survival, there is no scope for humankind to reach its fullest potential. Higher needs can be pursued only when basic needs have been met. So does it follow that our social contract has failed us? It is true that modern governments have more or less shielded us from the Hobbesian description of human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. But for all our collective achievements we are not really that far away from a state of nature because we have failed to ensure the opportunity for every individual to achieve the highest potential that she is capable of.  As the Supreme Court of India observed – ‘Life’ in Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the right to exist. It does not connote mere animal existence. It has a much wider meaning… and includes all those aspects of life which go to make a man’s life meaningful, complete and worth living. But when we look around we see our fellow men and women struggling to swim against a daily tide that threatens to drown them in drudgery. We see struggles just to exist. Some of us have had the chance to give expression to creative urges, the chance to savour the privileges of being human, but collectively as a society how can we claim to have elevated ourselves above the beasts that we proudly tamed? Yet we are told that contentment is a virtue.

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