There is a classic Yiddish folktale of a poor man living in a crowded one room hut with his wife and five children. Against his will his mother-in-law comes to live with them. He tries to cope but the noise and cramped conditions wear him down to the point where he goes to the local rabbi seeking counsel. The rabbi, upon listening intently and pausing to reflect for a moment asks “Do you have a rooster?” “Yes,” replies man. “Then bring the rooster into the hut with you and come and see me in a week.”
A week later after enduring even worse conditions, the man returns complaining to the rabbi. “Do you have a cow?” the rabbi asks.”Yes” the man replies hesitantly. “Then take your cow into the hut as well, and come see me in a week.”
Over the next several weeks, the man, on the discomfiting advice of the rabbi, adds into his increasingly chaotic little hut his goat, pig, two dogs and his brother’s children. Finally, at wits end, when he can take it no longer, he goes to the rabbi. “This is crazy! It’s not working, things are only getting worse!” “Good then,” said the rabbi. “Now kick all the animals out and send the guests home – come back and see me in a week.”
Upon doing this the man reported back to the rabbi. “It’s wonderful, Rabbi, my home is so spacious and quiet – why I don’t even mind having my mother-in-law live with us now. I can’t believe it.”
I was first introduced to this delightful story as retold by Margot Zemach in her beautifully illustrated children’s book entitled “It Could Always Be Worse” when my children were little. It became one of my favorite books and I loved reading it over and over to them. The tale’s message about contentment is so simple and yet so profound.
Contentment is basically a matter of perspective and therefore something that can be learned.
Not surprisingly this is exactly what the Apostle Paul says about his quest for contentment in the midst of difficult circumstances in his own life. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” he says. (Philippians 4:11)