A Constant State of Dissatisfaction

In those jovial and relaxing moments of conversation when people feel content to contemplate the philosophy of their lives, the observation is often posed that for each year we are alive the next year appears to pass more quickly. My explanation for this observation had been standardized long ago. When we are five years old, a single year comprises 20% of our life and so when a new year comes and goes we seem to have become much older, merely by proportion, than the adults whose years pass like collections of months to us.

Another explanation is that when we are young, the world is new to us, and thus almost every additional experience is like being exposed to an aspect of life never before seen. Yet when we grow older, the luster of the world, through repeated inspection, appears faded and we cannot help but see each additional experience, no matter how novel it is to us, as something we’ve seen before.

But here’s an alternative. As we grow older in age and in experience, we become more and more invested in the standard achievement narrative of a life. This is the story that posits life as a journey to some worthy destination, and an individual as the traveler who braves trials and dragons to find the reward at the end of the road. But in such a narrative meaning exists most truly, if not exclusively, at the end of our travels, and each step only has significance in proportion to how much closer it brings us to that end.

Children, who are less exposed to this narrative and consequently do not battle with it, are given a greater license to see their moments in life just as they are. Thus these moments, not parsed through an exclusively utilitarian rubric, do not pass through them like water, but get stuck to their insides and stay with them. So that in a year they have lived through and held onto hundreds of significant moments, while their adult counterparts jaded and tired, have held onto, if they are lucky, one or two.

To put it simply: children appreciate and thus experience the world more, and adults appreciate the world less.

I am falling into the banal adult habit of romanticizing a childhood I no longer experience. To be complete, I must admit there certainly are demons in childhood that are sometimes only exorcised when those children become adults. Demons of fear, narcissism, and obedience, and these certainly can destroy the life of a child as surely as the child’s more beneficial predilections can save it.

But one must acknowledge that appreciation of where one is right now is largely antithetical to the way most adults conceptualize their lives. It is certainly not the way I, for the longest time, saw myself or my work. Recognizing some gap in life, something hollow and bare or some meaning not supplied, I believed that this gap could be filled through something grand, or at least something that scaled in magnitude to what I perceived was the size of the gap. And since the hole was felt now, I constructed a story which if faithfully followed, would allow me to eliminate it or reduce its size in the future.

And yet the story was not constant, and the solution to the emptiness fluctuated in time so that the gap always remained, and its filling always existed beyond the horizon. And strangely, although I saw quite clearly the lies of consumerist and materialist culture, that is I realized that nothing one could buy would give one so much peace as to feel no need to buy anything again, I did not see the parallel lies in the much less maligned, or even noticed, achievement culture. I did see that those who had already achieved so much were often the most hungry for more achievement, but I could not see at all what this fact had to do with life.

The physicist turned financial quantitative analyst Emanuel Derman once said that “Ambition is a constant state of dissatisfaction with the present”. However, so too is depression, and the danger is that one can allow the reality of dissatisfaction to feature so prominently in one’s evaluation of the present that the present turns from merely dissatisfactory to completely intolerable. This usually occurs when one ties one’s sense of contentment too closely to the achievement of certain goals. In such cases, it becomes impossible to appreciate the moments that pave the path to achievement because one is always so focused on achieving.

It is very easy to look at your current life and realize you are not where you want to be. It is also normal to look at your past and realize that all your life you have felt somewhat incomplete and dissatisfied. The natural next step is abdication; if one is always unfulfilled, what is the purpose of seeking anything?

The irony is that people, rather than seeking because they are unfulfilled, may be so unfulfilled because they are so constantly seeking. Perhaps with a world as full as ours, we must entertain the dangerous possibility that any felt emptiness is self-created, arising from the space between where we are now and where we want to be. And this place of where we want to be, as a reflection of our insecurities and the uncritically accepted lessons of our culture, is more of us than of the world. And this possibility is so dangerous because its full investigation will demand that we question the delusions of identity and personality that we believe make us who we are. It has taken me very long to realize this and indeed I am still trying to interrogate this new knowledge, but it seems true: The way I have been taught to see—or less generously, the way I have accepted how to see—the world is actually just an elaborate means of obscuring that world from view.

Thus there is a contest between looking at a life and seeing all that is still missing and looking at a life and seeing all that is already there.

And so comes the lesson I am still learning: Any approach to work or to living that makes you incapable of appreciating the decontextualized moments of your life, the small steps whose larger purpose has yet to be discerned, is a perspective that is wrong no matter how necessary you believe it is to getting you to where you should be.

And here, too, is the goal: To see our experiences through a lens that takes them as ends in of themselves and not simply as means for some alternative present. Seeing the moments of our life for what they contain and not exclusively for what we think they may give us, that is, not for how much closer we think they will bring us to where we believe we must be.


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