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I often read dystopian books and watch dystopian films. While asking provocative questions about humanity’s fate, they typically portray the future as a dark, troubled place.

Less common are books and films that compare the present to the past, and ask us to consider whether earlier times were better than the present.

Or is it just a longing for a different time? If not an earlier time, then would living in the future be better? Or is this whole thing just another example of the cliché “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”? Perhaps it is merely a symptom of discontent. So what is contentment anyway? We often think of it as being a feeling of physical comfort and ease. After a busy day we sit back, relax, and sigh with contentment.

We know that animals are content when their physical needs are met. They don’t pass judgment about time or place. They live and even prosper when they have enough food, water, an ambient temperature, and a satisfactory social structure.

As physical beings we have much in common with animals—yet we are vastly more. We have powers of thought and free will far beyond the comprehension of animals. These words from the Baha’i teachings enlarge this idea:

How can man be content to lead only an animal existence when God has made him so high a creature? … But to man God has given such wonderful power that he can guide, control and overcome nature. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 122.

This power comes with great responsibilities, which are mitigated through our reality as spiritual beings. As such, a moral conscience guides and directs us, telling us to look for the greater good in our deeds, prompting us to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us. Since nothing happens in isolation, we need to consider our impact on the planet and other people. In contrast to animals, which simply act according to the fixed laws of nature, we contribute through our work. Because this comes through free will, it is another source of contentment and satisfaction.

We also experience contentment when we feel secure within a supportive social environment. Having a loving family, loyal friends, congenial neighbors, and cooperative colleagues can make us joyful and contented, even when other circumstances prove difficult.

If we extend our thinking about this immediate social environment to the larger community, then we can be content when we trust that other people will help take care of the essentials. Living in a well-organized society where all residents can depend on infrastructure and continuity of governance is a great blessing. Far from taking these things for granted, I am grateful for being relieved of daily worries about items such as clean water and dependable power supplies.

But how do we find contentment when things aren’t going well?

Contentment in harsh circumstances can be learned from Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, both of whom were long-time prisoners in some of the harshest prisons in the world. Yet they both wrote that even in those circumstances they were happy and content, because they had transcended the physical and were connected to higher, more spiritual realms.

Paraphrasing a passage from Baha’u’llah’s mystical book The Seven Valleys, Adib Taherzadeh wrote: “Only those who have entered the valley of contentment have experienced true joy, even though their lives be subjected to affliction and suffering.” – The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Volume 1, p. 100.

There is a lesson in this as well: each of us is where and when we need to be, and we have choices about how we regard our lives here and now.

Every place and time have their own challenges and needs, and this is where contentment needs to be separated from complacency. Being content does not mean we should be lulled into complacency. On the contrary, contentment can be the launching point, allowing movement from strength to strength. Being content and happy with where and when I am living allows me to be actively engaged in improving my character and contributing to the advancement of society.

Dwelling in nostalgia can be distracting. It is better to learn from the past and apply those lessons. Likewise, if I look so far into the future that I become removed from the present then I will miss opportunities here and now. It is better to have a goal in mind and work toward it.

If I do this, then the answer to the question “Was the past better?” is “no”—and the question “Will the future be better?” gets a confident “yes.”

8 Comments

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  • Charles Boyle
    Jan 07, 2019
    Good article, thanks. That "greener grass" on the other side of the fence just makes you fat and lazy...
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Jan 07, 2019
      Omigosh, Charles - that threat will keep us motivated. (Thanks for sharing your humor.)
  • Aaron Siering
    Jan 05, 2019
    Great article. . . . I don't know what the Baha'i scriptures say exactly on this point, but I am obsessed with understanding this particular sliver of history in which I am living. I intuitively feel like in all the worlds to come we will have our particular connection to the material world through the specific time in which we lived in it.... like this is the only opportunity I'll ever have to exist in this plane of existence and I want to understand everything about it, to soak it all in as an experience. It also makes us a ...family with those we shared this life with in a different way. Others will have their time, but this is my time and that is something very special I've shared with everybody who has ever lived in it along with me.
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    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Jan 05, 2019
      Your fascination with the time you are "here" is remarkable, Aaron. And you may be right that we have enduring relationships due to sharing time-space. One thing we know for sure: When you get to the next world you'll find out! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.
  • Steve Eaton
    Jan 05, 2019
    A super article.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Jan 05, 2019
      I am so happy you enjoyed this, Steve!
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Jan 04, 2019
    Than you for this positive slant on the present being the right place for me to be content but strive for future goals. I am struggling some days feeling like I'm treading water, confused, even frustrated & scared. My beloved husband passed away almost 6 months ago leaving me in a rural isolated area with no close family or even neighbours. Generated power for a few hours per day. So many things including the generator all decided to break down within weeks of him dying. I sometimes feel like I am having my hell on earth. I honestly would be ...insane if it were not for the telephone and placing my trust in Bahá-u'lláh. As I said some days I have cross words as to the predicament I'm left n & suggest to Him some solutions. I'm in training.
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    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Jan 04, 2019
      Thank you for sharing your heart here, Rosslyn. I suspect you are doing better than you think - your sense of humor seems to be intact. (I smiled when I read your "suggest to Him some solutions" comment.) We Baha'is are fortunate to have so much guidance about healing, spiritual development, relationship with souls in the next world, and ever so much more. Yet, as you know first hand, it is a day-by-day process to work through it all. Please accept my loving thoughts and almost certainly the loving thoughts of anyone else who may read this.