The Virtue of Being a Malcontent
Most of us were raised to believe that contentedness is virtuous. Gratefulness is one of the most valuable virtues; there is a slight distinction, however, between contentedness and gratefulness. The latter is indisputably important, while the former can easily turn into complacency. One can be grateful, while not yet content. If you’ve ever received a gift that you weren’t all that thrilled about, but didn’t want to insult the gift-giver, you’ve practiced this yourself.
It’s critical to understand that just because something is a certain way, doesn’t mean that’s how it should be. Going through life with this mindset: “the way that things are, is the way things must be,” is cancerous not only to oneself, but to the society one inhabits. Certain religious folks have a particularly difficult time with this concept, as they believe everything that happens is according to the absolute will of God. Other people have succumbed to the sense of powerlessness that is endemic to this boiling point of our economic structure. Others simply just don’t give a shit, apathy has completely taken over. What’s worse, to me, is reinforcing that complacency by telling people that being content is an inherently “good” behavior.
I believe being discontented with inadequate circumstances is one of the fuels that has driven us forward throughout history. No one’s society was ever improved by perpetually maintaining the status quo. What exactly drives us toward improvement is a matter of some philosophical contention, but it certainly isn’t accepting living in squalor. Another distinction which is difficult to draw is between apathy and contentedness. It’s easy to fool oneself into thinking, “I should just accept this as a norm for my life, it’s better to be content,” when in reality, it’s justifying depression, or some other overbearing weight, and neglecting to address the core of the matter.
No radical change is possible without discontent. People, both individually and collectively, have to be willing to say, “This is bullshit, I’m not going to stand for this anymore,” whether in the context of an internal struggle like depression or addiction, or an external oppressive force, or conditions will only continue to fester and grow worse. I find myself at a total loss with some people, completely unable to permeate the thick layers of conditioning built up over the years, who are utterly miserable in their situation, but unwilling to do anything differently. Having struggled with suicidality and depression for practically all of my conscious life, I’m definitely familiar with the ease of which one can fall into mental ruts, and getting out of them certainly doesn’t typically happen overnight.
I’ve been grappling with suicidal thoughts for almost 20 years, and for many of those, I was operating under the impression that feeling that way all the time was just going to be a fact of life for me. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I had even considered the notion that I could ever reach a state of being in which my default setting wasn’t depressed. While environmental factors have definitely played a role, it’s definitely been a better route changing from the inside-out than trying to change everything around me while remaining the same miserable soul internally.
This is not to be interpreted in any way, shape, or form as saying we should not be thankful for that which we should be thankful. Of course, we should express gratitude as often as possible. We must, however, be conscientious of the precarious balance between contentedness and complacency.