When More Seems Like Less

Lance Armstrong bristled.  He bristled when someone implied that it’s easy for him climb steep mountains on a bicycle.  And not just climbing, but climbing fast.  Did they believe him when he told about his legs burning and his lungs bursting?  He said what about it?  It doesn’t get any easier, it just gets faster.

Accomplishments recede.  Satisfaction recedes.  The more we know, the more we realize what we don’t know.  The more we see, the more we want to see more.  Yesterday’s thrills become today’s boredom and tomorrow’s joke.

I went hunting in the Tennessee mountains with my high school buddy.  Not knowing what to do, I decided I should get to high ground.  There was snow and bitter wind.  I struggled up and up, slipping and sweating, finally seeing ahead a leveling off–the top of the mountain, I thought.  What I saw there took my breath away.  I had only climbed a low ridge and was staring at range after range of towering peaks.  I sat and rested, considered it hunting, and returned the way I’d come.  The mountains had humbled me.

We know this principle is at work, but is it a good thing or a bad thing?  The answer to this can get very confusing.  A young person wishes to be slim and attractive.  Nothing wrong with that, of course.  But how slim is enough?  How much focus on weight and body shape is enough?  An otherwise healthy goal can become an obsessive disorder and even threaten life.

My dear alcoholic friend moaned to me one mid-morning that he had drunk an entire fifth of scotch the night before and “couldn’t even get a buzz on.”  Addictions get us hooked and then keep raising the price. At first, just a little does it.  Before long it’s taking more and more, and even then it’s hard to ever re-create the original experience.  The experience recedes, even as we reach for it.

A picture of contentment

We’ve surely seen this played out in the orgy of greed that brought down once-trusted financial institutions and many of their star performers.  The more they gained in the eyes of others, the less it seemed in their own eyes, and the more they wanted and thought they needed.

This is sadly true of American society in general, is it not?  The more we’ve prospered, the less prosperous we seem to ourselves.  We complain that we need better this and better that, more of this and more of that.  Nothing satisfies us because we’ve grown to expect so much.

When I think of the people I’ve known who were contented and happy in life, they were rarely the striving and the greedy.  They were people who had learned to live life well and within their circumstances.  They were usually people with deep and significant ties to family and friends, and often with the land and with nature.  The friend whose image I picked to go with these thoughts was such a man.

Can’t you see it in his face?  And, trust me, this was his face.

In the eyes of many people, this man sitting on his porch would be seen as lacking in wealth and success.  But he did have wealth, of a sort at least.  His wealth was his contentment.  You can try, but you can’t do better than that.

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