The gravy was dark and thick, spreading slowly over the slice of warm, freshly baked bread. I would savour its steaming aroma as if in a trance while I made my way back to the table. There I would separate a small mouthful, ensuring that every taste bud of palate and tongue was exposed to texture and taste. My need to make each portion last as long as possible and the whole slice forever, was in conflict with an inner agitation that perhaps I could get a second slice if I rejoined the queue quickly before some of the other convent boarders had their first serving.
It seldom worked. I would be shoved roughly out of the line by an always bigger fellow. Even my two older brothers would studiously ignore my plight. On the rare occasion that a generous soul allowed me back in the queue, a second helping would be denied by the intimidating nun dispensing this manna. That interaction was always frighteningly the same. I would avoid her eyes as if approaching a giant gorilla. Her disapproval needed no eye contact – just a growl would send me scurrying back to my place. So at the age of five, I learned well the lesson of a “bird in hand” and “sufficient unto the day”. For the next few after-Sunday-mass breakfasts I would ensure that my single slice would last much longer.
Now, more than 60 years later, I occasionally catch a nostalgic whiff from some kitchen and my mouth will water. But it’s never quite the same. I have been on the gravy train once and no experience since has matched it – not even among the hundreds of formal banquets, parties, home cooked meals or first taste of some exotic elitist offering. As magnificent as they may have been, they have never embedded themselves as deeply and permanently in my memory as that one slice of unbuttered bread with a spoonful of gravy. It has remained my favourite snack, but no repetition has recaptured the first experience.
The point of this little cameo is to be found not so much in Oliver Twist but in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s prisoner “enjoying” a meal in the Gulag. He removes an old handkerchief from his pocket and slowly spreads it in front of him as a tablecloth. From another pocket he retrieves a small chunk of bread and places this on the hanky. Then he breaks off a piece of the bread, puts it in his mouth, and with singular intent savours every morsel. Solzhenitsyn of course tells the story beautifully and in greater detail than I have done from a distant memory of the reading, but the point is that the prisoner’s delight in a bit of bread equals, if not exceeds, that of Onassis consuming spoonfuls of caviar on a yacht in the Mediterranean.
This leaves me puzzled. Is this the real key to contentment? Can we really envy Onassis above Shukhov if the meaning to them is the same despite a vast difference in form? Is this not simply our own pretentious perceptions?
It is not the man who has little, but he who desires more, that is poor. — Seneca.
This implies that contentment is mostly a self created state. We can find it in a Russian prison or in Auschwitz as Viktor Frankl did. We can find it in times of elation or intense grief as I did some 6 years ago. It is within our grasp moment by moment and ultimately it is the only real and lasting degree of immunity that we can create against contagious misery out there. No matter how troubled the water is on the surface, we can always submerge to a deeper place to escape the turmoil.
Amazingly, despite all the wisdom of the ages, we have created a generation, if not an entire era, that thrives on the opposite – on expectations, comparisons, competitive “angst”, wealth and possessions and on misery if Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning work is to be believed. It’s called the hedonic treadmill or the Easterlin paradox. Despite constant questioning, even by Kahneman himself, the Easterlin theory has not been shaken. All that the debate is showing is that perhaps we as humans don’t have a clear idea of what makes us happy. We appear to have difficulty too in distinguishing between concepts such as happiness, joy, elation, satisfaction, contentment, serenity and peacefulness. Measuring these remains an aloof and impossible task, especially on a national scale.
So even if we are armed with all the research, life-style writings and motivational paraphernalia, our own personal experiences only will give us the answer. What follows are my own personal brushstrokes on a canvas that may never reveal a full landscape. What I see much of these days is that we seek answers in cocooned and cynical selfishness that blames the other, the “system”, the politicians, a race, mothers, fathers, economists, and the media. As if to make a contribution, we take cheap and personal swipes in responses, muttering “so there” as we withdraw into our self righteous glass houses. How much more could we have achieved by a single act of kindness or merely plain courtesy to another?
Prosperity has always been upheld as the provider of national contentment. The jury is still out on that postulate. Are money and possessions what they are made out to be? Do they satisfy the deepest wish for peace and contentment? I hear a chorus of “Yes” as I write, supporting my own instinctive response. As a provider of security it is suspect. We either transfer our insecurities elsewhere or to a fear of loss of what we have - a fear greater than that of not having. The joy we get from the pleasures and comforts of wealth is momentary. It’s as transient as we are as physical beings. Certainly, the more we have, the more we can repeat these moments…until the caviar becomes boring. We marvel at each new experience and pleasure, until it becomes a routine, and then we move on to the next one, the next and the next in a form of dazed dancing. Kahneman calls this the aspiration treadmill.
We will gaze in awe at a moon landing, and only briefly glance at a rose, whose existence is even more miraculous. We get to a point where we appreciate our comforts only when sparing a thought for the have-nots. We try to sustain our happiness by assuming that others are miserable in their simple lives. We think that those who have more than we do must be happier. And we are caught in a spiral where the more we have the more we want.
Research has produced volumes of results showing that money is not the motivator or the provider of contentment it is thought to be. Any correlation between the two reveals on deeper reflection that money can be a means to achieve meaning. But according to Carl Jung, meaning only becomes meaningful when it helps us make a difference to other people’s lives.
I wrote this article as a break from my current themes. And also to illustrate that the degree of immunity we can achieve at company level, can be achieved even more so at a personal and individual level. I found myself returning to the research I did some years ago for Value through Values and was amazed at how rapidly perspectives are changing and how important they have become to classical economic theory. Quantitative theories are rapidly being either discarded or being seen as only one part of a much bigger picture…one that is still far from complete. This is very exciting, and will constantly be the underlying theme in The Human Touch on MONEYWEB. What it implies is that as we get to understand the interaction between behaviour and outcomes we will increasingly question current and historic theories.
This leaves me wondering whether the times we live in are not signalling the imminent end of the grand celebration of wealth and possessions, and out of the choice between austerity and accelerated consumption we are going to be left with a deep appreciation and gratitude for what we already have inside of us: contentment in simplicity. Perhaps it’s a choice that nature will help us make. Better so than to have it removed by a “system” or misguided ideology.
Whatever the choices and whatever the outcomes, best we start taking our serenity supplements now. It’s a state worth having under any circumstance.
This article can also be seen on MONEYWEB