When my kids were younger, one of our favorite books to read together was It Could Always Be Worse (By Margot Zemach). In this classic zany tale, a “poor unfortunate man” lives with his mother, his wife, and his six children in a very small home. It’s noisy and crowded, and life is difficult, so the man visits the rabbi to get some advice about how to relieve their suffering. Surprisingly, the rabbi tells the man to bring several animals into his house, starting with chickens, a rooster, and a goose, and eventually adding an old goat and a cow. With the addition of the animals, life in their small home only becomes worse. When the man can’t stand it any longer, he returns to the rabbi, begging for help. The rabbi then asks the man to remove all the animals from the house. Once he does, the man and everyone in his family at long last sleep peacefully and feel that they have plenty of room: “’Holy Rabbi,’ he cried, ‘you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful…What a pleasure!’”
The Jewish value taught in this story is sameach b’chelko, which means “contentment with one’s lot.” Ben Zoma said, “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a)
In modern life there is much yearning and striving and unrest. We are taught, primarily by marketers, to want and want and to never be satisfied. This message is so loud and consistent, that the notion of being content with what you have almost seems quaint. Being content with your life, however, wherever you are at the moment and whatever you have, is a prerequisite to feeling joy. After all, how can we experience joy when we’re focusing on all the ways that our life isn’t right?
This applies to stuff. There is so much stuff to want; it seems to be an ever-present temptation. This also applies to our bodies as we are bombarded by images of a very specific example of physical beauty, which can quickly overshadow our ability to see true beauty, beauty within, in others and in ourselves. And this can apply to our lot in life. We look around and decide that someone else has it better – a better job, a better partner, better kids, better talents, and on and on.
Sameach b’chelko is deceptively simple because we inherently know that this value makes perfect sense. Because of this, we can easily trick ourselves into thinking we have mastered it even as we’re complaining about our lives and thinking “Once this happens, or once I have that, then I’ll be happy” type of thoughts.
True joy stems from appreciating all that we have and all that we are right at this moment. It stems from doing our best not to complain about our problems or insist that we can’t be happy until our problems are solved. It stems from stopping yourself from saying, “My life is a mess,” and replacing it with “I’m incredibly blessed.” When we are able to shift our mindset in this way, we open ourselves to fulfillment, joy, and an appreciation of wherever we are at this moment is right where we’re supposed to be.