Contented with life, yet wishing for more
Everywhere you turn, somebody is wanting something they don’t yet have. The quote that titles this note is by Charles Lamb, who gave that adage when asked about his motto. The truth is, Mr. Lamb might as well have substituted “my motto” for “our motto.” Because chances are, if you have internet enough to read this (as I certainly have to write it), this motto applies.
I usually strive to read a book about or connected with Christmas around this time of year. In the past, I’ve read heartwarming tales such as Tracie Peterson’s Julotta and Ed Butchart’s The Red Suit Diaries. This year, however, I’m afraid the holidays have gotten away from me. Living in Austin where the temperature consistently hovers around 75 degrees does not do much to heighten the Christmas spirits for a girl who is used to snow, ice and scarves (though I have still been wearing the scarves). And so, I pull out of my purse Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I have been trying to finish for a few weeks now.
The amazing thing is, until today I had never considered this a particularly Christmas-y book. It’s not set in December and the characters do not exchange gifts or attend holiday services. However, as I read, wearing short sleeves and open-toed shoes five days before Christmas, I realized that this book is very much a Christmas book.
Newland Archer, a member of high society New York in the early 1900s, is engaged to May Welland, another member of society. However, right around the time they announce their engagement May’s cousin Ellen Olenska flutters in and, with her unconventional wiles and blatant disregard for social etiquette, begins to draw Newland’s attention away. And, from what I can gather over what I’ve already read, he begins to follow his mystery and lose track of himself and his relationship to May. This will undoubtedly come to a hilt and a solution will appear in the nick of time so as not to force Newland, Ellen or May to step outside the regulations of social graces (for the most part).
None of the primary characters in the story really need anything. They may not have the most money, and their lifestyle may exceed their circumstances, but they are still able to have those lifestyles. Yet even in their affluence, they still cannot be perfectly happy with what they have. this book may focus on a certain grouping of people, but anyone who has glanced over a history book in high school understands that with the high comes the low, and with the rich comes the poor. In as much as I’ve read so far, Wharton doesn’t highlight the immigration and tenement life that may have existed just around the corner from her story.
The ironic element in the title quote is that as long as we keep wishing for more, we are not content. Is Newland really content with May as long as Ellen is around? I don’t know. Over the course of the week, we will undoubtedly get more than we really need, but for most of us what we get won’t be too much of a surprise. Think back about one month: wasn’t the question always, “What do you want for Christmas?”
There is no harm in Christmas lists, or in the contents. But let us remember to be content. And, in addition to iPads, Kinects and clothing, let us remember to give someone else a wish. Someone who, for good reason, shouldn’t be as content as they probably are.