Settling toward happiness
by Sarah Rohde
“Whatever you do, wherever you go, whoever you become, never settle!”
Among the words of advice that I’ve received throughout my life, this phrase nears the top in terms of frequency. It is advice that I’ve heard echoed again and again from the mouths of elders and mentors. I remember hearing it from teachers and coaches who always encouraged us to have a strong work ethic that never settled for less than our best. Graduation speakers propelled my peers and me into a world with zeal, urging us to never settle for a job or a life that didn’t engage our deepest passions and potential. And most interviews with celebrities—with those who’ve made it big—tend to send forth a similar sentiment: “aim high, shoot for the stars, never settle until you’ve attained your greatest dreams.”
Oh the places, I’ll go!
Part of me thinks this is pretty solid advice. It’s empowered me to believe in myself and pursue my full potential. It’s motivated me to fill my journey with curiosity, adventure, and anticipation. I’ve lived abroad; I’ve sought out experiences that launched me out of my comfort zone; and I’ve experimented with different possibilities and paths for my future (oh, and did I mention that I’ve chosen to live in a new place every nine months for the last five years?). Living in different places and trying on different hats maintains a sense of freedom and flexibility that I really enjoy.
Refusing to settle has also helped me hold onto a vision of myself and the future that is not stagnant, but rather fluid, hopeful, and capable of transformation. As human beings, we’re given the power to make choices, to enact change in our own lives and in our communities.
Our resistance to settling serves our dreaming and visioning for the future, and urges us to continually ask questions like: What more could there be in life? What else do I want to experience in life? What changes can I make—personally and communally—that will stir greater happiness and justice for all God’s people? How can we make the world that is more like the world as it should be?
Refusing to settle keeps us ever-striving for more, and this can be fruitful, even exhilarating. But this never-ending quest for more is, well, just that—-never-ending! It recently occurred to me that there is no such thing as a destination on this particular track. While I’m young and fit enough to keep right on running, I’m having second thoughts about whether or not this whole refusing to settle is good, or faithful, or even possible.
Climb every mountain—or not?
I wonder what we lose by always focusing on what could be? What learning, beauty, and intimacy do we miss out on when we’re always trying to climb just a little bit higher, move just a little bit faster, earn just a little bit more?
Said another way, when does constant striving keep us from forming a sense of place, planting some roots, developing depth and authenticity in our relationships, or finding renewal in the midst of repetition?
The never-ending quest for more certainly feeds our ever-expanding visions for the future, but I’m becoming more convinced that it also feeds a life of discontentment and disease. We’re never okay with the way things are. Our jobs, families, churches, homes, and salaries could always be better, and we get wrapped up in trying to make that happen. It’s so easy to focus on what could or should be, rather than all that is good and beautiful about what is, now.
I recently read this quote by Eugene Peterson: “We are surrounded by a way of life in which betterment is understood as expansion, as acquisition, as fame. Everyone wants to get more—to be on top—no matter what it is the top of that’s admired. There’s nothing recent about the temptation. It’s the oldest sin in the book. The one that got Adam tossed out of the garden and Lucifer tossed out of heaven. What is new about it is the general admiration and approval it receives.” (A Long Obedience)
Just the way we are
In some ways, our story of faith is about not settling. The Christian faith wouldn’t really be faith if it settled for the world as it is. And yet, at the same time, our story of faith is all about a God who breaks into our lives here and now, who comes to this world as it is, who comes to human beings as we are, who comes to settle with us where we are. The beautiful thing about our saving God, though, is that God doesn’t come just to be with us and stay put with us. God comes to show us a way of transformation, and maybe it’s a way of change that doesn’t necessitate endless striving. Perhaps transformation of self and sight can happen by settling in.
Sometimes we’re so busy searching elsewhere for God, for purpose, for clarity, for happiness, that we miss God and purpose and life right where we are. My hunch is that happiness isn’t something so much to be found as it is something to be lived.
So much of monastic wisdom speaks about dwelling where you are. Early monks were advised to “stay in your cell, for the cell will teach you everything.” I’m not advocating for resignation or passivity; I’m not suggesting that change isn’t good or sometimes necessary; but I’m pausing to consider the value of slowing down and, in fact, settling. I’m wondering aloud whether settling might be key to a life lived in happiness.
Sarah Rohde is a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and is currently serving as an intern at Trinity Lutheran Church in New York City. Sarah enjoys outdoor activities, cooking, and hand-written letters.