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Essay

To be content

By July 30, 2021 9 Comments
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It might be fanciful. No one who was there was alive when the book was written, but let’s just assume the writer did her homework and wasn’t making things up. I don’t doubt for a moment that she researched what might have happened; it wouldn’t have been impossible to find out what, exactly, was said at something as important to the Omaha people as “a naming”–and this child, after all, was the headman’s daughter, Susette La Flesche, daughter of Joseph Iron Eye and Mary Le Flesche, his wife.

Just before the little girl goes into the tent where she will meet the head-dressed priest of the Omaha’s religion, Susette’s mother prays: “I desire for my daughter to walk long upon the earth. I desire her to be content with the light of many days.”

For those who might wonder, my own sojourn into these seventy+ years is marked by more than a handful of considerable diminishments. Be advised, things do slow before, need I say it, they really slow. But when I came on the “naming” of Susette La Flesche, the idea of her mother praying for her daughter “to be content with the light of many days” seemed especially interesting because it was difficult to imagine any mom or dad I know to bring son or daughter before God and offer a similar request: “I desire her to be content with the light of many days.” Righteous, yes. But still, unique.

That contentedness is a biblical virtue seems obvious. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” That from I Timothy 6. There’s always the sparrows and those flowers of the field who neither toil or spin.

Mary LaFlesche’s praying for a blessing on her first, beloved daughter is as universal as the dawn, but what most of us would like in and from our children–and grandchildren–is for them to be exceptional in some way, to win, to succeed, to rise to the top of whatever ladder they climb by buckling bootstraps and taking on the rest. We want happiness, sure, but we also want success. We’d like action, certainly not passivity. We want our children to win, not just get along.

It seemed to me an unusual petition, to ask God to bless our children with some goodly measure of contentedness. Cows are content, after all. I couldn’t help but think the request didn’t seem natural.

We thrive on competition, as does nature itself. You don’t have to be an evolutionist to note natural selection. Wolves get hungry; they eat whatever they can bring down, the slowest or weakest caribou. Only the strong survive, right?

Two small colleges exist side-by-side out here in the northwest corner of Iowa, remarkably similar institutions, so similar that only a native knows their differences. If there are differences at all, they’re shrouded in histories few care about, even the natives. Both colleges sell themselves as “Christian,” and both struggle for head counts in the present demographic climate, their mutual base shrinking dangerously.

I once told the President of one of them that I thought it would be not only gracious but prudent for the two colleges to think about sharing facilities and faculty when it was possible. He shook his head. “Competition is good for both of us,” he said. He’s likely at least partly right.

That’s what I was thinking about–how odd it would be to hear a loving parent asking God to bless her son or daughter with being content and, on the other side, how important competition is to our way of life.

This week, the world’s attention is set on Tokyo, where competition is measured in hundredths of seconds, where the difference between taking home the gold and going home a loser can be documented only on a computer printout at some finish line.

Stories galore emanate from Olympic competition. There’s the shocking story of Linda Jacoby, a 17-year-old swimmer from Seward, Alaska, hardly a swimmer’s haven, who took the gold in the 100 breast-stroke. And then there’s the big story: Simone Biles, the marquee USA Olympian, one of the world’s most renowned athletes, whose muscular body wouldn’t do what it supposed to when it was supposed to, a routine she had practiced so hard and so competitively for years. That perfectly-toned body simply refused to twist the 2 1/2 times it was supposed to, in the grip of a condition gymnasts call “the twisties.”

When it happened, she quit, not because she failed but because she understood that what was in her wasn’t going to be enough to bring her to the excellence that has characterized her routines for so long. 

Was it a physical problem, she was asked? She said no–it was a mental problem. Her failure was spectacularly newsworthy because completely unexpected. She’s made of tough stuff, after all. She’s practiced her life away. She’s accomplished things on the mat that thousands of others could not have dreamed of. Then, with the world’s attention focused on her, she gets a game-over attack of “the twisties,” walks off, and pulls on her sweats? Really.

Competition sharpens us, toughens us, makes some few of us champions. But Susette La Fleshe’s mother wasn’t letting her daughter down by asking the divine to help that child be content. As well all know–even seniors (trust me!) have to learn that being able to live with yourself isn’t just an odd job.

Consider this too–when Simone Biles didn’t crush that 2 1/2, she didn’t run into the locker room and bawl, didn’t hide away, didn’t stay out of range of a camera. She pulled on her sweats and went right back out to cheer on her teammates.

You can’t help but be proud of the strength, the sheer conviction of her contentedness.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

9 Comments

  • Mstair says:

    Really interesting this morning! Evoked these thoughts:
    “Cows are content…”
    Cows are ungulates; grazing herd animals
    Hummingbirds are competitive (territorial)
    Humans can behave as both (of late like hummingbirds)

    Jesus chose the analogy of sheep/lambs for His ekklesia

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    So teach us to number our days.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    “For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances”, Phil 4:11b. You’re right, it is an odd blessing to ask for but one that we all struggle to attain. Contentment. It has nothing to do with abundance, want, success, or failure and everything to do with grateful acceptance for what we are – children of a loving Father whom we seek our whole lives. Yet there are enough moments of resting in that sought after contentment to give us grace to move forward each day.

  • John K says:

    The father of Suni Lee thanked Simone Biles (as the GOAT) for allowing his daughter to shine. This decision, he said, proves that Simone is “The Greatest of All Time.”
    Competition and cooperation. Wanting to serve beats winning or losing. Thank you Jim.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    As the son of a great and back then well z known coach, all I felt was that I let him down. At 77 I still do. He never thought I did.
    Thank you, Jim. And your cats.

  • George Vink says:

    Once again, James, a delightfully-written and desperately needed word of wisdom, reflecting hope and promise. We learn even as we compete,,,but I still don’t like the listing again and again of the number of medals by what country. But, I’m trying too to be content. The translation of contentment “whatever circumstances” used to be in one translation, “…in whatever state I am.”. But, I always felt the need to add “except Iowa….”

  • Bonnie Reinders says:

    Interesting and insightful cow/contentment commentary. I would add, as a former diver for the short-lived Dordt Dolphins swimming team, that certain activities, like diving and gymnastics, are downright dangerous if the athlete doubts his or her ability to perform correctly.

  • I have been involved in business competition almost my whole adult life. Never was good at it but I survived more than 40 years doing it. I never thought of myself as a competitor but only as someone who just strived to do the best job as I could. Which brings to mind a book I read many years ago. “No Contest: The Case Against Competition/ Why we lose in our race to win” by Alfie Kohn. Alfie presents some very good arguments that humans were designed for cooperation and not competition. In fact he goes as far as saying competition is bad for your mental health. Might be part of original sin of wanting to be like God and have control of our own destinies.

  • Carol Visser-Wolf and Steve Wolf Wolf says:

    Well said! Good reminder of what really matters in life. We can honor both competition and contentment with each path our journey takes. Thank you for posting this.
    Carol and Steve Wolf

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