It was a Tuesday evening. Matthew, who is in 3rd grade, was excitedly telling me about the day’s events, including a math competition in his classroom. As he beamed at his success in the contest, he stated that it came with a reward. With that, he pulled the coveted prize out of his pocket—an orange, Dum-Dum lollipop. Although his days are certainly dotted with complaints of unfairness and of desiring more, on this particular occasion he looked as if he had struck gold. Well, orange gold that was.
Over the years, Matthew and his siblings have certainly been the recipients of many rewards and indulgences, including that of a sweet variety. But as Amy and I try to remain conscientious in our decisions as parents, one of our goals is to teach our kids to appreciate the small reward, the simplest of joys. Whether it is a beautiful sunset slowly dropping below the horizon out the back window, or the joy in finding a strange bug outside or a penny on the sidewalk, there is little doubt that we hope that as our kids grow up, they require little from the world in order to please them.
In reading this, some of you might think that we are teaching our kids to settle for less. On the contrary, though, when it comes to relationships, vocations, faith, and other matters of the heart, my hope is that we are setting high standards. Never would I want our children to simply be fine with small things while allowing the rest of their lives to be one of ruin and heartache. Life demands that we constantly pursue goals, empathy, awareness, and transcendence at the highest level, certainly when it comes to treating ourselves and others as we should be treated.
But what I am speaking about here is the ability to find simple joys at any time, and to not develop a reliance or expectation for “more” that might cloud the joy of “less.” Even though Matthew might consume thousands of suckers in his lifetime, it sure makes living that much more enjoyable if one remains a prize. Every morning the sun rises as it always has. Yet each morning it remains a moving experience if we really consider the artistic way it illuminates the new day. And a free thing at that, one of the many free or low cost opportunities for mirth available to us daily if we so choose.
Beyond the merits and rewards of a simple pleasure, we should also consider that its inverse is responsible for much of the world’s incessant woes. Consider why many people are unsettled, addicted, or even just disenchanted at times. Sometimes there is a biological or interpersonal explanation. But I would also contend that many people’s dissatisfaction with their current state is that they need more and more to fill an existential void. They develop a “tolerance” to simple pleasures, in the process seeking out indulgences and desires that grow exponentially in ways that leave them in a morose state, and sometimes in financial and relational chasms.
Yet if less stimulation exacted greater joy, life could be much different. I don’t believe we would stop seeking out majestic sources of beauty or new thrills, but I think that we would recognize them as treats to be relished, not idols to repeatedly pursue and consume. Meanwhile, the simple pleasures of our day could really be joyful and readily available at any time.
However you regard this vision, I come back to Matthew’s moment of delight. Beyond his innocent, vibrant reaction over what seemed like a small reward, there was one more aspect that moved me. It was that the lollipop was only a minor part of his glee. What I failed to elaborate on is that for a number of minutes before the sucker appeared, he was so excited to tell me about how he and his classmates came together for a great time—to do math as well and quickly as they could. In the end, the sweetest thing wasn’t the sucker—it was joy that came from within and with them, and was shared with me, his dad.