So asserts Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding
Sweetgrass.1 Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi
Nation, has a Ph.D. in plant ecology, and teaches environmental and forest
biology. In her book she braids together
indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge. The quote above is an obvious
conclusion to make from her understanding of the energies and mysteries that
pervade the inter-connections of all life on Earth.
When we contemplate this assertion the truth of it
The words alone are enough to show us the distinction
between consuming and being content.
The word consume comes to us via Latin. The Latin
verb sumere means to take. A consumer is a taker. A taker takes
from somewhere, or from someone else. A taker (consumer) takes something
external to themselves, not something intrinsic.
derives from Latin. Com(n) meaning with or together, and tenere
meaning to hold. Hence, we could define contentment as the
ability to hold together all the contents that make up being human. This means
being able to hold, lightly, even seemingly contradictory emotions (e.g.,
sadness and happiness.) Viewed this way, contentment is more a state of mind
than it is an emotion or feeling.
Contentment then, accepts things the way they are, but
not in a care-less or resigned manner. Contentment has a conscious element and
is both active and passive.
The passive aspect of contentment says: “I’m OK with
this,” and “I am satisfied the way things are right now.” The active element of
contentment asserts that “I have enough,” “I am replete,” and “I do not need to
grasp at something, nor do I need to avert myself.”
When we understand contentment this way, then Kimmerer’s
statement that ‘…contentment is a radical proposition’ becomes clear.
As a radical proposition, contentment is highly
active. It shouts out, “Enough is enough!” and “this is enough!” Assertions
such as these are anathema to an economic system wedded to the mantras of
perpetual growth and consume-for-consumptions sake.
This is why there can be no such person as a content
consumer. A consumer (taker) living under the rubric of perpetual growth can never
have enough, can never be content. A consumer is never satisfied. A consumer,
attuned to advertising that screams out “Buy more, buy happiness,” attempts to gratify
an inner longing or yearning via something external. When that externality no
longer satisfies (as it will,) the consumer must purchase more – ever more.
The Hungarian-Canadian physician and author Gabor Maté
is informative when trying to understand how our individual psyches are shaped
by the environment and culture we live in. Borrowing from Erich Fromm’s
understanding of social (versus individual) character, Maté describes three ‘core
social character traits common to most members of (our) culture.’ One of
these traits he names Consumption Hunger and notes that, ‘Among the
great achievements of mass-consumption culture has been to convince us that
what we have been conditioned to fervently want is also what we need.’2
This describes addiction.
Contentment, however, radically rejects this
consumption hunger. Contentment says “NO” to the corporations, institutions,
and infrastructure that train us into believing that we want more and more
This blog concludes with a poem written by Kurt
Vonnegut (author of the highly acclaimed novel Slaughterhouse Five) for
his friend Joseph Heller (author of another highly acclaimed novel, Catch-22.)
The poem recalls a party, given by a billionaire, at which Vonnegut and Heller
were in attendance. It tells of a conversation the two famous authors had:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”3
1. Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Penguin Random House, UK, 2020.
2. Maté, Gabor, with Maté, Daniel, The Myth of Normal:
Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture, Vermilion, London, 2022.
3. Vonnegut, Kurt, published as an obituary poem for Joe
Heller in The New Yorker, May 2005.