What a large slice of life is spent in wishing! We wish for health, wealth and happiness — justifiable wishes, for it is only human to want things that we do not already possess. But there are pitfalls imbedded in the 'wanting.' First of all, a great deal of time and energy can be dissipated in just wishing, time and energy that could be devoted to the taking of steps for the practical attainment of the wish. Secondly, and here is the big snag, how are we to know whether the fulfillment of the wish is going to be a good thing for us? There are few people who do not at some time or other get depressed and discontented with themselves and wish they could change the circumstances in which they live. It may be that we find life too mechanical and the routine, day in day out, year in year out, is like a mighty chain with no break. Perhaps we are landed in a position we hate; or are compelled to spend a large part of our time among people who are uncongenial; it may be we wish we could travel but are pinned to one spot; or the opposite, we are forced to travel constantly and long to 'stay put.'
There are so many things that can generate discontent that it is impossible to enumerate all of them. One thing is certain and that is that jealousy and envy in a great or small degree often play a part in the make-up of discontent. When you come to think of it, there are some hundreds of millions of people in the world and no two of them could be in exactly the same position, with the same possessions and the same opportunities. Therefore it follows that envy or jealousy is ridiculous. Moreover, many of the things we envy in other people rarely bring them happiness. Would they then bring happiness to us?
It is a truism to say that adversity is good for us, but there is no doubt that it does awaken or create in our nature a standpoint of real values and often develops attributes we did not know we possessed — attributes that could be brought into the light of day only through our having been up against some hard and perhaps bitter experiences. Actually some of the happiest people one knows are among those who are going through really troubled times, whether through ill-health or adversity. On the other hand, the most miserable individuals can be found among those who have plenty of possessions and so much leisure that they are constantly worrying about whether they are happy or not.
It is a fact that man can attain almost anything he sets his mind on, if there is sufficient concentration and an overwhelming desire. Robespierre, for example, allowed nothing to stand in his way for the accomplishment of his purpose, but everyone knows the tragedy that attended his so-called success. Obviously, we do not know what is best for us, and to wish ardently for an end that seems out of our reach might well bring disaster in its wake. In The Monkey's Paw, W. W. Jacobs tells the story of a couple, in ordinary circumstances, who lived quite happily until one day they were given the chance of having three wishes fulfilled. Now they had always had an overweening desire for a certain sum of money — two hundred Pounds — here at last was their chance. Their wish was granted, but it brought no joy, only grief, since the sum of money — the exact sum — was paid as compensation for a terrible accident and consequent death of their only son.
This seems to point to the fact that wishes can become so strong that they are capable of deflecting the natural currents out of their course and thus bring about events out of time and place. One can visualize desire becoming such an obsession that it can, temporarily at least, overlay action. When Robert Louis Stevenson said that it was better to travel than to arrive, he knew from personal experience and suffering just what he meant.
There is one very good antidote to this poison of discontent which is likely to infect any one of us — there are few who are immune from it — and that is to stop and count our blessings. Go out and deliberately count up all the lovely things that we can do that someone else is unable to do. Look at that man over there, walking with a white stick! Look at that cripple in a wheel-chair! Think of that face we saw looking longingly out of the window — the face of one imprisoned in her bed of sickness! There is no need to list all the ills to which man is heir.
Our problem lies in making the best of those circumstances in which we have placed ourselves, and if the script of our lives suggests that we should do everything possible to raise ourselves out of those circumstances, then a discontent is not a bad thing, but it must be a 'divine discontent' — that is, the motive must be one that entirely discounts envy or jealousy of another human being. If we act from strength, we work with what we have, and let the wish and desire remain quiet or latent, under control. We must never allow them to become the tyrants that rule us and dictate our actions, and in many cases make of us bitter and discontented human beings.
Life is like a tremendous adventure, which has most thrilling experiences, during the journey from birth, through youth and maturity and right on to the end — which is only another beginning. The adventure never ceases. If then it were possible to have all our wishes granted when we desired them to be granted, what an empty shell life would be! The experiences we endure teach us incalculable things about ourselves and others.
We learn then that the only way to achieve happiness is to give it away since "Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops yourself." There is no one so poor that he cannot count some blessings of his own.
(From Sunrise magazine, June 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)