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The Power of Contentment

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (June 1, 2013)

A couple weeks ago, I went to visit Phnom Penh in Cambodia. It was my first trip there and it was fascinating, but sad, to hear the history of the country. As I was there, friends brought me to visit the schools, orphanages and the slum area. What impacted me most was the slum area because it was the poorest, dirtiest area I had ever seen before. A couple decades ago, the city didn’t know what to do with the rubbish waste of the city so all of it was dumped on a site just on the outskirts of the city. Over the years, more and more got piled on and it became what is now known as the rubbish mountain.

People moved live there and make that place their home because of the income it could bring them. Every day, the settlers would walk on the rubbish mountain to look for trash items they could sell for money – plastic bottles, copper inside wires, reusable items. Oftentimes, it would be the children, young children, going out to look for the items - some of them barefoot, some of them naked, when going about their daily ‘work’.

As I was there, I meandered through the narrow streets of where they lived. The people there were kind enough to let us see their homes and community area. They had constructed shacks by the rubbish mountain where they all lived in close proximity with no fresh water supply, no electricity and no basic level of hygiene. We saw a pigpen inside a family’s home, chickens running around, flies hovering over mounds of rubbish all covered by the stench from the nearby mountain.

But what struck me most whilst I was there wasn’t the smell, nor the living conditions. What struck me most were the smiles. As I walked through the narrow lanes, everyone smiled so widely at me and each other that it looked like sunshine glowed from their faces. I had expected gloomy, depressed countenances but instead I was greeted with warmth and joy. Children were happily running around, affectionately holding our hands and cheerfully wanting to take photos.

Seeing these children with no shoes on their feet but smiles on the faces reminded me of what the writer Paul the Apostle wrote “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”.

Contentment. This was what I was challenged about. These children that I saw in Cambodia didn’t have many material things at all but they were content with what they had. And then I contrasted it with children in Hong Kong. Hong Kong children have abundantly more than what they need materially but many of them are still discontent. So my conclusion is that contentment has less to do with what you have in your hands but more to do with what is in your heart.

A contented heart can have empty hands and still be content; but a complaining heart can have hands that are full but still be discontented. I feel challenged to teach children to be content with what they have, whether little or a lot. But the greater challenge is for us, adults, is this: to be truly content ourselves. Are we content with the phone or handbag we have or are we coveting the newest model? Are we content with the family and friends we have or do we complain about their behaviour? Are we content with our children or are we always complaining and comparing them to other children?

Most parents I have met tell me how they want their children to appreciate what they have and how lucky they are to have so many things. Many times children are told ‘you should be happy you get food to eat. Many children in poor countries don’t have food’ or ‘you should be happy you get to go to school. Many children in poor countries don’t get the privilege of learning’. These parents are well-intentioned but I think this often breeds guilt (children feel guilty for having what they do when they might not have asked for it) or arrogance (children feel like they are better than others) or pity for less privileged children. I think the better way to go about it is to show our children how amazingly content other children can be and how we can learn from them.

But first, let us learn to be content ourselves. When we as parents learn to ‘be content in every and any situation’, our children will follow suit. After all, children do what we do more than do we say.


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