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BOOK REVIEW: Happiness, contentment are two different things Mary Jacobs, Sep 28, 2011
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned from My Uncle’s Farm Robert J. Wicks Sorin Books, 2011 Hardcover, 224 pages
As a youngster growing up in the city, Robert J. Wicks writes, “I learned about the need to be all that I could be in life.” That spurred him to take risks, to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist and to write more than 40 books.
But it was the next challenge of his life that inspired this book.
“The greater, more crucial calling for me now is to be content with who and where I already am . . . to appreciate what is already there in my life,” Mr. Wicks writes. Contentment is different from happiness, he says, and the tools for pursuing each are different, too.
Streams of Contentment is a meditation on what it means to be content, and what it takes to achieve contentment. While it’s not overtly religious in its approach, the book promotes “common-sense spirituality” for weathering life’s inevitable ups and downs.
“Life is simpler than we make it,” Mr. Wicks writes. “Knowing this can encourage us to focus more directly on what is truly important and essential in life.”
The author turns to his experience as a young person spending summers on his uncle’s farm for insights into living with contentment. Observing the “simple rural spirit” while living on the farm, he writes, he learned a “country psychology” that readers can benefit from, wherever they live.
“In my experience, many people who live in rural areas often seem to be more ‘real,’” he writes. “On the other hand, those of us raised in urban areas (like me) are often taught to put up a front for the people we are with. . . . We sacrifice a great deal in being so concerned about our reputation and persona.” Putting aside facades and focusing on what’s most important, he writes, is the beginning of finding contentment.
Mr. Wicks relates how the rhythms of agrarian life offer lessons in handling difficulties of our own lives. He recounts the childhood memory of a colleague, whose aunt took her to field on the farm in the middle of winter. The aunt urged the child to “listen to the life” in the earth, even though it was dark and hard.
“It is often when the land seems most barren, cold and dark that life is quietly growing!” she told the child. Later, they returned in spring to the field, where green shoots had begun to emerge.
The lesson: Just as a farmer wisely “steps back” from his fields during the winter season, letting nature do the work of replenishing the soil, we can grow by leaning away from our emotions during the winters of our own lives. “Patience (leaning back emotionally), friendship and openness can help you sit with the personal darkness of anger or sadness until it softens your soul and teaches all the lessons of contentment that it can,” the author writes.
Streams of Contentment is mostly a collection of stories, all of them well told and thought-provoking. Many relate directly to Mr. Wicks’ theme of contentment and the “rural spirit,” but others, from Mr. Wicks’ practice as a psychologist, aren’t so clearly tied to that essential message.
In that way, Streams of Contentment meanders at times, a bit like a country road. It’s a pleasant and unhurried stroll, with readers gleaning useful-but-standard advice (“Be clear about what is truly essential,” and “Appreciate more fully everyone and everything in your life now”) along the way.
Still, the book gives the reader plenty to ponder on how that which we think makes us “happy” often differs from that which makes us content. Most valuable are Mr. Wicks’ insights into ways that the trying times prepare us for contentment, if we allow them to teach us. “Seek to let sadness soften your soul and help you to be more open to growth and new possibilities rather than to believe your own choice is to remain frozen in permanent discontent,” he writes. “Bitterness need not be your permanent fate; the history of many persons who have undergone terrible tragedies but gone on to live gentle, contented and compassionate lives teaches us differently.”