( Originally Published 1879 )
"Poor and content is rich, and rich enough; But riches endless is as poor as winter
To him that always fears he shall be poor."
EVERY man either is rich, or may be so; though not all in one and the same wealth. Some have abundance, and rejoice in it; some a competency, and are content; some having nothing, have a mind desiring nothing. He that hath most, wants something; he that bath least, is in something supplied wherein the mind which maketh rich, may well possess him with the thought of store. Who whistles out more content than the low-fortuned plowman, or sings more merrily - than the abject cobbler that sits under the stall? Con-tent dwells with those that are out of the eye of the world, whom she hath never trained with her gauds, her toils, her lures. Wealth is like learning, wherein our greater knowledge is only a larger sight of our wants. Desires fulfilled, teach us to desire more; so we that at first were pleased, by removing from that, are now grown insatiable.
We knew a man that had health and riches, and several houses, all beautiful and ready furnished, and would often trouble himself and family to be removing from one house to another ; and being asked by a friend why he removed so often from one house to another, replied : "It was to find content in some of them." But his friend, knowing his temper, told him, "If he would find content in any of his houses, he must leave himself behind him; for content will never dwell but in a meek and quiet soul." The inscription upon the tombstone of the man who had endeavored to mend a tolerable constitution by taking physic, "I was well; I wished to be better; here I am," may generally be applied with great justness to the distress of disappointed avarice and ambition.
We sometimes go musing along the street to see how few people there are whose faces look as though any joy had come down and sung in their souls. We can see lines of thought, and of care, and of fear—money lines, shrewd, grasping lines—but how few happy lines ! The rarest feeling that ever lights the human face is the contentment of a loving soul. Sit for an hour on the steps of the Exchange in Wall Street, and you will behold a drama which is better than a thousand theatres, for all the actors are real. There are a hundred successful men where there is one contented man. We can find a score of handsome faces where we can find one happy face. An eccentric wealthy gentleman stuck up a board in a field upon his estate, upon which was painted the following: "I will give this field to any man contented." He soon had an applicant. "Well, sir; are you a contented man?"Yes, sir; very." " Then what do you want of my field?" The applicant did not stop to reply.
It is one property which, they say, is required of those that seek the philosopher's stone, that they must not do it with any covetous desire to be rich, for other-wise they shall never find it. But most true it is, that whosoever would have this jewel of contentment, (which turns all into gold, yea, want into wealth,) must come with minds divested of all ambitious and covetous thoughts, else are they never likely to obtain it. The foundation of content must spring up in a man's own mind; and he who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove. No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has.
It conduces much to our content if we pass by those things which happen to trouble, and consider what is pleasing and prosperous, that by the representations of the better the worse may be blotted out. If I be over-thrown in my suit at law, yet my house is left me still, and my land, or I have a virtuous wife, or hopeful children, or kind friends, or hopes. If I have lost one child, it may be I have two or three still left me. Enjoy the present, whatever it may be, and be not solicitous for the future; for if you take your foot from the present standing, and thrust it forward to tomorrow's event, you are in a restless condition; it is like refusing to quench your present thirst by fearing you will want to drink the next day. If t-morrow you should want, your sorrow would come time enough, though you do not hasten it; let your trouble tarry till its own day comes. Enjoy the blessings of this day, if God sends them, and the evils of it bear patiently and sweetly, for this day is ours. We are dead to yesterday, and not yet born to to-morrow. A contented mind is the greatest blessing a man can enjoy in this world; and if in the present life his happiness arises from the subduing of his desires, it will arise in the next from the gratification of them.
Contentment is felicity. Few are the real wants of man. Like a majority of his troubles, they are more imaginary than real. Some well persons want to be better, take medicine, and become sick in good earnest; perhaps die under some patented nostrum. Some per-sons have wealth—they want more-enter into some new business they do not understand, or some wild speculation, and become poor indeed. Many who are surrounded by all the substantial comforts of life, become discontented because some wealthier neighbor sports a carriage, and his lady a Brussels carpet and mahogany chairs, entertains parties, and makes more show in the world than they. Like the monkey, they attempt to imitate all they see that is deemed fashion-able; make a dash at greater contentment; dash out their comfortable store of wealth; and sometimes, determined on quiet at least, close the farce with a tragedy, and dash their brains out with a blue pill. Discontented persons live in open rebellion against their great Benefactor, and, virtually claim wisdom, more than infinite. They covet, they wish, and wishes are as prolific as rabbits. One imaginary want, like a stool pigeon, brings flocks of others, and the mind becomes so overwhelmed, that it loses sight of all the real comforts in possession.
Contentment consisteth not in adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire; not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting men's desires. Worldly riches, like nuts, tear men's clothing in getting them, spoil men's teeth in cracking them, but fill no belly in eating them. When Alexander saw Diogenes sitting in the warm sun, and asked What he should do for him? he desired no more than that Alexander would stand out of his sunshine, and not take from him what he could not give. A quiet and contented mind is the supreme good; it is the utmost felicity a man is capable of in this world: and the maintaining of such an uninterrupted tranquility of spirit is the very crown and glory of wisdom.
Nature teaches us to live, but wisdom teaches us to live contented. Contentment is opposed to fortune and opinion—it is the wealth of nature, for it gives everything we either want or need The discontents of the poor are much easier allayed than those of the rich. Solon being asked by Croesus, who in the world was happier than himself, answered, Tellus; who, though he was poor, was a good man, and content with what he had, and died in a good old age. No line holds the anchor of contentment so fast as a good conscience. This cable is so strong, and compact, that when force is offered to it, the straining rather strengthens, by uniting the parts more closely.
Those who are contented with a little deserve much; and those who deserve much are far the more likely persons to be contented with a little. Contentment is oftener made of cheap materials than of dear ones. What a glorious world this would be, if all its inhabitants could say with Shakespeare's shepherd : " Sir, I am a true laborer, I earn that I wear; owe no man hate; envy no man's happiness; glad of other men's good, contented with my farm." Half the discontent in the world arises from men regarding themselves as centers, instead of the infinitesimal segments, of circles. Be contented with enough; you may butter your bread until you are unable to eat it. Enough is as good as a feast. When you feel dissatisfied with your circumstances, look at those beneath you. There are minds, said John Quincy Adams, which can be pleased by honors and preferments, and I can see nothing in them save envy and enmity. It is only necessary to possess them to know how little they contribute to happiness. I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage, with my books, my family, and a few old friends, dining upon simple bacon and hominy and letting the world roll on as it likes, than to occupy the most high places which human power can give.