Two potatoes,” my wife said. When I met her eyes, she raised her eyebrows meaningfully and repeated the phrase. I took a breath, smiled, and returned to quietly eating my meal. Our guests burst into incredulous laughter. I had subjected them to a long rant about the rising cost of gas, food, insurance—just about everything. My wife had listened patiently but finally reached her limit. Now our friends wanted to know how two ordinary and seemingly random words could shut down my tirade. We looked at each other, she shrugged, and I told our friends about Pete.
The grandson of immigrants, Pete grew up hearing stories about real poverty from his relatives. Like many who came to America, Pete’s Eastern European family arrived poor, and they remained so for longer than they would have liked. That meant stretching food items for as far as they could go. In their case, they ate a lot of potatoes, especially potato soup. The emphasis in that name was on potato, since it usually contained a single spud.
Occasionally, though, Pete’s grandfather would come home with enough money for an extra one. That day, the soup would be richer, the dinner grander, and the fellowship sweeter. And the old man never forgot the “Founder of the feast.” His prayer of thanks always included the phrase “and for two potatoes!”
Pete took his grandfather’s lesson to heart, and “two potatoes” settled into his own family’s vocabulary. Through our friendship with Pete and his clan, we adopted the phrase, too. We admired how they seemed to see the world differently, and their contentment with their circumstances never seemed contrived.
That kind of contentment was foreign to me. My own life seemed caught in a cycle of materialist binges, of desires that were never satisfied. I enjoyed a very rich life, but I always wanted more, more, more of everything. So I bought what I wanted, whenever I wanted it—until my choices began to have a serious financial impact that shook me awake. It became clear that the siren song of consumerism had nearly shipwrecked my family on the rocks of debt. What’s more, I saw my own lack of contentment robbing us of opportunities to give financially and otherwise. I saw in Pete’s family an openhanded and joyful approach to money and possessions, and I wanted to emulate it.
In Money, Possessions, and Eternity, author Randy Alcorn writes that if we could see our way of life from God’s perspective—our “accumulating and hoarding and displaying our things”—we would “have the same feelings of horror and pity that any sane person has when he views people in an asylum endlessly beating their heads against the wall.” When we see that, our only way out of the asylum is through the door to contentment and into a “two potatoes” way of thinking.
The apostle Paul understood contentment well, despite a life that included both abundance and great need. When he wrote to the Philippians, he explained that he had discovered the secret of satisfaction. Paul said he had learned to “get along with humble means” and “to live in prosperity” (4:12). The experience of both sets of circumstances—and the assurance that God was out for Paul’s good in both—made it possible for him to imagine happiness in either. The same goes for us. If we can think only of the desire for two potatoes, one potato will never be enough. But if we can consider the possibility of having no potatoes, then one seems like a feast.
Paul reveals the real secret to contentment in the next, better-known verse: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (v. 13). We can be content whatever comes our way, provided we look to God for strength. He gives it not only in the form of physical or mental endurance, but also in helping us to see our life as He does. It’s His strength that helps us say “two potatoes” whether we have one, none, or an abundance.
In our house, as in Pete’s, “two potatoes” has become a code phrase for contentment and gratitude. When our “First World problems” threaten to derail our focus, one of us corrects the other with that precious phrase. It is a poignant reminder that no matter how bad we think our situation has become, we already enjoy tremendous blessings that far exceed the best that most people in the world can imagine.
by James Cain
Illustrations by Jeff Gregory