Let me dare to whisper the name of a traditional virtue that in our present moment may strike contemporary ears as a vice – contentment. Perhaps we are far away enough from the last election and near enough to a Thanksgiving holiday to consider contentment and imagine what it might look like. Let me tell you about Tommy.
At mid-afternoon I walked into the butcher shop and saw Tommy through the big glass window. He waved and said goodbye to the two other workers who were hacking their way through big beef flanks. As soon as he opened the door, the customers called him by name. We walked to the back offices and greeted his daughter-in-law who was working on the books and at the same time juggling her 3-year-old daughter. There were smiles and nods as Tommy took off his white butcher coat and apron.
We walked out to the parking lot and climbed into Tommy’s flatbed truck. It was a farmer’s truck, at least 15 years old, beat up and dirty on the inside, but able to haul whatever was needed from their farm into the butcher shop in town. We were on our way to visit Cliff, who was receiving hospice care at home. Cliff was Tommy’s father’s best friend throughout their lives. Cliff and Sarah welcomed us as we sat down in the family room of their modest and beautiful home. We heard the stories about working at the creamery and about Thomas and Cliff starting the Ruritan Club. It was a good and grateful time together. When I closed our hour-and-a-half visit with a prayer, I looked up to see Tommy wiping away tears from his eyes.
We rode together back to the butcher shop. Tommy caught me up on how the family was doing. His family has been farming in the Shenandoah Valley for seven generations. His daughter and her husband live a stone’s throw away where they raise sheep and work at the co-op. Now Tommy’s son, Tom, and his wife have taken over the leadership of the farming operation. In his 30s, Tom, took out a low-interest loan on another farm to add to what he inherited. He added more cattle and more acres for silage. While he manages more acreage than his father did, they are still small farmers in today’s agribusiness world. But they are amazingly clever stewards of the cattle they raise and the creek-fed land they tend. In the nearest town, staff and faculty from the college frequent the butcher shop because of the quality of the meat and their interest in “slow food.” And the working-class locals come to the butcher shop because Tommy’s family is trusted in the community. This family does good, healthy work. They are clearly and rightly proud that they are able to hire and provide good jobs to numerous employees.
I always enjoy being around Tommy. He is an active man. Yet there is enough room in his life to attend to the important relationships of his family, friends and neighbors. He has time to ride with the minister to visit his father’s dying best friend. He appreciates and enjoys good work to be done; he sings in the church choir; he volunteers at the firehouse. His son’s family is juggling a 3-year-old and a baby while running the farm and managing the butcher shop. This busy time in their lives means that there is not enough margin in life to stop and smell the roses. But they will come to that stage in the cycle of life later when they will be able to reap the rewards of their good work like Tommy is now.
Contentment may be one of the most under-valued virtues in contemporary American life. Sometimes people confuse contentment with ease. Yet as I witness Tommy, I know that he is constantly challenged with the financial difficulties of a family farm, the burden of being asked to do too many things in his community because he is a trusted soul, and the same aging struggles we all face. Contentment is not having so much money that a person doesn’t have to do anything. Quite the opposite, contentment is the fruit of long family commitments, meaningful and productive work, and deep and abiding attachments to community. The creative putting together of these elements over time brings genuine satisfaction to a person and puts into perspective the ordinary, daily tasks that sometimes drive us crazy.
I could write all day long about how contemporary American life creates discontent in people to control consumers. Advertisers have become technologically adept at convincing the unwitting that all that is needed for a happy life is their special product. Keeping up with the Joneses has been around for a very long time now. Add to this cycle of discontent the way our politics stoke the flames of tribal resentment. And for good measure throw in cable news 24/7 antipathy towards whichever other is the cause for all unhappiness, and the fire is roaring. That’s a lot of heat but no light.
The inspiration for a better way can be seen in someone like Tommy and so many others who are all around us. People who live contented lives do not do it by themselves. Nor do they construct meaningful experiences all on their own. They are both formed by human institutions and they contribute to them as well. Family, church, volunteer associations, local economy and civic responsibility are all a part of a web of relationships through which we as individuals are shaped and through which we creatively construct our lives. For those seeking greater contentment, Thanksgiving offers us a chance to give thanks for this web of relationships and a moment to consider how we may better connect with them.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.