Yesterday I was walking in downtown Zhuhai, the city in which I live in China. Lying on the sidewalk was a man who was clearly homeless. His pants were ripped and stained, his hair was matted and random and he was using a dirty plastic bag, stuffed full, as a pillow. He was flat on his back talking to himself. I had seen him before a few times, but now, for the first time, I caught a glimpse of his face.
What really struck me was his expression; he had a look of serenity and joy. Deep, leathery smile wrinkles spread out from the corners of his eyes reaching out towards his hairline. His face was tattooed in my mind. I paused, only for a moment, because I was with others, but as we continued I began to think about this man and his situation. My eyes looked ahead of me, but my mind was staring at the mental photograph of his face.
What came to mind was something I once heard Tony Robbins, the life coach, say. He was talking about achieving financial freedom and he said, “If you don’t have it, you don’t want it hard enough. You have to make financial abundance a must.” When I first heard Tony say this, I felt understood what he meant. However, after seeing the bright, shining eyes of that homeless man, those words sunk in on a whole new level.
This man, reclining on the concrete, was content with where he was. He was satisfied, I could see it in his face. I could feel it. He was not motivated to make more money or to improve his living conditions. Perhaps he did want more money or a house or a ferrari. But, he didn’t want it bad enough. It wasn’t a must for him to improve his circumstances. Therefore, his current circumstances persisted on. He continued to sleep on the sidewalks.
As much as this line of reasoning appealed to me, something about it didn’t sit well. “What about that face?” I thought, “He looks genuinely happy. Does he really need to strive to better his situation? Does he really need to go out and work himself to the bone to get a roof over his head? If he is truly content, isn’t that what counts?”
What is the goal of life? What is the mark of a life well-lived? What is more important: a life of constant improvement or a sense of serenity? If you are truly content, is there any reason to work to better yourself? These thoughts dominated my mind all evening.
This morning, while I was going about my business, like a bolt of lightning, it hit me. I was looking at this man’s situation all wrong. Just because he slept on the streets doesn’t mean he is doing nothing. It doesn’t mean he isn’t working on himself. After all, lasting self-improvement comes from working on your mind, your thoughts, your emotions, your inner world. For all I know, this man spends his days taming his thoughts, choosing his emotions, commanding his soul. Perhaps he is a master of self-control. Certainly, his calm, poised expression is the result of years of serenity.
I was fooled by outer appearances. I assumed that if his outward circumstances were less than ideal, then this man was lacking in something and could, if he really wanted to, demand more from himself in order to change his situation. I do believe he could improve his financial situation if he made it an absolute must, but perhaps he decided that his efforts were better put to use elsewhere.
Why waste time chasing pieces of paper he could use to get stuff? Maybe all he wants is to contemplate the nature of the universe and become the master of his inner world. Maybe he’s laughing at us as we rush past him in pursuit of the world outside ourselves. Now, of course, I have no idea what is really going on in his mind, but in that moment when I gaze penetrated his eyes, I saw into his soul and I felt his contentment.
Does contentment put an end to self-improvement? Is there a point where you say, “Everything is perfect. I am completely content and full of gratitude and no longer need to work on improving myself?” I suspect not.
One should continuously persist in being better for three reasons: 1) the world around us will change, 2) if we don’t continously improve we will slide back down to a lower state and 3) contentment itself comes from the feeling that we are becoming a better, stronger person.
One thing that is certain in life is that things will change and, no matter how close to perfect our lives are now, we will need to adapt. Some may be dismayed when realizing this; that we must be forever vigilant. But for me, it makes me smile, because one of the great joys of my life is knowing that I will never run out of ways to be better, stronger, more in control and more serene.
I celebrate life because everyday I have the option of being a bit more perfect than I was yesterday. Think about that for a moment… Isn’t it a beautiful thing that, no matter what you do, further greatness may lie before you? If you so choose, from now until the remainder of your days, you can walk enthusiastically up the path of greatness, always eager to see what further opportunity lies around the bend for you.