Or What’s the Use of Crying Over Spilt Milk?
(Has anybody else read this book? It’s a fun one which I enjoyed reading with my kids. It has nothing to do with this post, except that whenever I think about spilt milk, this is the picture that comes to mind.) I will warn you ahead of time that my thoughts in this post may be as disconnected as this book is from the title. My thoughts are not well developed or formed as much as they are forming and percolating. The writing them out is part of the process for me as I try to figure out what contentment is all about.
I will not let my longing for what isn’t, what should have been, what could have been or even what could be destroy the gifts, goodness and delight of what is.
I will not accomplish that by pretending that what isn’t, what should have been, what could have been or even what could be (1) is wrong to long for or (2) doesn’t really matter to me.
I will not make contentment easier (or, in reality, make it something fake) by denying my longings or just caring less.
Those are some decisions that I think are implied in choosing contentment. But, saying them in that way–as declared choices–misses the important point that contentment is not something I can achieve by willpower. It is not something I grit my teeth and determine I am going to make happen–whether I like it or not.
In many ways, contentment is a byproduct of things like acceptance and trust. It is a sort of side effect. (Since becoming a medical transcriptionist, I find myself thinking in quasi-medical terms about everything. So, drugs have side effects, well so do acceptance and trust.)
In another way, though, contentment is an attitude which needs certain things to be able to grow and flourish. Plants need good soil, sunlight and water to flourish.
I deeply believe that, among other things, contentment needs grief in order to be able to thrive.
And so, I say that as part of choosing contentment, I will let myself cry over spilt milk. Indeed, I believe I need to be able to cry over spilt milk–to really grieve–in order to truly be fully content in my present circumstances.
Yesterday, Psalm 42 was brought to my attention, here and here.
And this morning as I continued to reflect on that Psalm, connected to circumstances in my own life, and also things I am grieving for others I care about, it dawned on me that David, in a sense, was crying over spilt milk.
David was crying over spilt milk.
- Over what was not: “I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and stand before him?” (Regardless of how you may argue that this is not a “was not”, i.e. that David still WAS in the presence of God, the bottom line is that David, in asking, “When?” was expressing grief over what he was not at that moment tangibly experiencing.)
- Over what should not have been, “Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?”
- Over what was no more, “My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be; I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks…”
- Over what was maddeningly confusing and unclear, ” ‘O God my rock,’ I cry, ‘Why have you forsaken me? Why must I wander in darkness, oppressed by my enemies?’ ” (I have chosen you as my rock. I trust you, but I wonder why you have responded by forsaking me. Even my choice to trust God sometimes feels like so much “spilt milk”. It’s one thing to grieve enemies taunting me asking where God is. It’s another thing all together–and I daresay even more painful–to be crying out TO God, still in in trust, and asking “Why have you forsaken me?”)
I’m not trying to stretch this Psalm to make it fit with a sermon on contentment. What I am saying is that as I walked through yesterday, facing many situations which seem to defy the possibility of contentment, I found great comfort in David’s expression of deep and anguished grief, intertwined with his hope in God, his continual trust in God, and the hope that he would yet again praise his Savior and his God.
Which comes first–the commitment to trust in God as rock? the questions and grief? the acceptance? the contentment? The affirmation of intent to hope and praise? I. Don’t. Know. I really, really don’t. It’s not that neat or formulized to me.
What I do know, though, is that the grief, the crying like David cried, is for me an essential part of making space for contentment to be a real possibility in my life.
When we equate acceptance of “what is” with bucking up, moving on and getting over it, we strip acceptance and make it more or less meaningless (what’s the big deal with accepting something that is no big deal, after all?). And if the acceptance is pretty much a “doesn’t matter anyway” kind of thing, then what we call contentment is pretty much apathy. (Thanks, Terri, for adding that word to the equation and to my thinking).
When I cry over spilt milk, I’m counting the cost of contentment, and I’m choosing that cost.
In addition, crying over spilt milk, to me, feels like affirming the value of the longings and also the value of the things that should have been or could have been or even could be, but are not yet.
If I’m mourning the loss of a friend, in very real ways I am also affirming and celebrating (albeit with a heavy heart) the wonderful delights that that friendship brought me.
If I’m truly committed to choosing contentment while living in a dry and dusty place, while my heart continues to grieve the life I knew, let’s say, in the lush rain-filled forests of Oregon, my grief over what isn’t here affirms in real ways, the beauty of what was there. I believe that it is only by facing that kind of grief head on, crying over the spilt milk of what cannot be in this place, that I am freed to begin to content with what is here, and not just in a “Sigh, I’ll just have to make the best of it” way. Crying over the spilt milk of what cannot be in this place lets me be content in ways so that I can be surprised by beauty and life and even the ability to thrive in a less than ideal place or situation.
If I’m in a difficult church situation (or even a less than perfect one, and what one isn’t?), and grieving what I deeply believe should and could be, my grief in some ways affirms the great value of what should and could be. Sure, contentment makes space for me to work within the realities that are, but the grief not only makes the contentment richer, I believe it also makes space for the longings to be and reflect the important hopes that are also real and very good.
I’m I’m mourning the loss of a dream, or even the end of a dream, which has now been shown to be not possible for one of my children, I honor the child by choosing contentment and acceptance about what is, but I also honor the reality of my longings and desires by grieving the things I had hoped for, which were right and good, even if they will never come to fruition now, in the realities of living in a broken and fallen world. Out of that grief, which flows in both directions, I believe contentment can flourish–a contentment which makes room for surprises and delights and joys which otherwise could not have been.
I do not think we can or should short circuit that process by trying to willpower the contentment to happen without walking through the grief–the crying over spilt milk. Not if we want the contentment to be real contentment (as opposed to pasted on). Not if want that contentment to be deep and beautiful and thriving.
It is not so much that the crying over spilled milk lets me get over the pain and move on with contentment as it is that I think the contentment about what is flourishes the most when it is lived in the context of honestly grieving what isn’t.
Crying over spilt milk is, I believe, one of the conditions to real, good, organic and beautiful contentment growing and freeing us up for receiving the good that is there for us in the reality that is.
Crying over spilt milk is a key part of how I find my way through to contentment with what is and the freedom to delight in the goodness and gifts that are, while continuing to hold to the longings which keep hope alive in my heart.
[Hmmmm…I’m rethinking that last sentence. I don’t think it’s exactly that the longings serve to keep hope alive. But I do think, somehow, that part of being settled into contentment includes making space for the ongoingness of longings, and that somehow those longings interplay with hope in important ways. So I’ll leave the sentence, admit it kind of falls short, and keep thinking about what it is I’m trying to get at there.]
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