I was granted a priceless gift at age sixteen. I met Oliver. But then, little do we know, except in later years, what unexpected, Providential guidance we are granted early in life to help us find our way toward the spiritual destination of our Earthly pilgrimage. And so it was with me.
Oliver, already in his eighties, was the father of the rancher for whom I worked. Although not a worldly man in the sense of education or breadth of travel and experience, Oliver was the most contented person I have ever known.
He had come from Montréal in eastern Canada to northwestern Colorado at age twenty-two. There he had worked for MacIntosh, a man of whom he often spoke as he told me stories about his early days herding horses on the open range.
At length, Oliver bought his own ranch and began to build a herd of cattle. A man of few wants, he prospered as the years passed--a prosperity marked by the prodigious woodpile in the middle of ranch yard, which Olive proudly proclaimed to me was the "flower of the place." (The woodpile was much larger when Oliver was still alive.)
By the time the Great Depression of the 1930s arrived, Oliver was better off than most and could have purchased additional land as banks foreclosed on neighboring ranches, but he chose not to.
The passing years brought Oliver six sons, four of whom became ranchers by dividing the home ranch among themselves. Although each made an adequate living on his portion, the son I worked for once showed me another ranch he could have had as part of his allotment if only his father had bought it during the Depression. Even at sixteen, I detected the anger and bitterness in the rancher's voice as he blamed his father for his naïve lack of interest in acquiring as much land as possible.
One evening, while sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the screened porch of the "main house," where Oliver lived, I asked him why he had not purchased more land during the Depression. Rocking slowly back and forth, as though deep in thought, he paused in his forward motion just long enough to squirt a stream of tobacco juice toward the can tacked to one of the posts that supported the porch screen. His aim impeccable, he hit the cardboard bull's-eye attached to the post just above the can. Only then, with a look of satisfaction, did he visibly turn his attention to me.
"I could have bought more land," he said. "I had the money."
"Why didn't you?" I asked as he paused.
"Because," he continued, "I already had enough. I had all I could really take care of. Besides, at some point 'more' just becomes 'too much,' and life becomes a constant worry over enough time and money to care for what you have."
As the lessons of intervening years gradually coalesced, I began to equate my restless wanting with the emptiness I felt within. And somewhere in the accruing years, that evening on the porch with Oliver came out of memory's shadow. At that moment, the intellectual definition of "contentment" became clear, but not its counterpart, its spiritual meaning. That would await another day.
I'm not sure when the meaning of "contentment"--of wanting what I have and having what I want--began making its way into my wakefulness, where it gently, unobtrusively commenced stilling the restlessness of my soul as it did so. Nevertheless, the day came when I awoke to the fact that I, like Oliver, was content with what I had, that 'more' would only become 'too much.'
Now, I understand the spiritual depths of which contentment is an emotional manifestation. That said, my life is no longer governed by the insistent current of contrived desires--those borne of jealousy when others have more than I; those borne from a sense of lack, a sense carefully orchestrated by the advertising industry as it bows to our consumer-oriented, consumer-driven economy. To be immune to advertising's protestations is to have earned one of enlightenment's crown jewels, contentment with my life as it is, here, now. "Thank you, Oliver, for the gift you gave me so many years ago--a gift I finally understand, the true meaning of 'contentment' and its companion, a feeling of inner peace."
©chris maser 2004. All rights reserved.