CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #24
ENOUGH IS NEVER ENOUGH
Why are we so fascinated with the biggest, the longest, the fastest, the widest, the strongest … the whateverest? Why do people climb high mountains and explore uncharted places? What is it about competition that excites us? Why do we keep asking questions about ourselves and the world? Why do utopian myths have such power over the human imagination, repeatedly through history provoking people to do some very strange, wonderful, sometimes heroic – from time-to-time tragic – things? From whence come the pathologies of perfectionism, jingoism, racism, sectarianism, greed etc – all twisted manifestations of something that runs very deep in human nature and drives us on, even when it is destructive? Why do we ever get bored and restless? We know, as if by instinct, that a rut is but a shallow grave, that satisfaction contains the seeds of dissatisfaction, arrival implies departure. Enough is never enough. What is it with us human beings that keeps us reaching out for the ‘more than’ and the ‘beyond’? What do we want?
There are a multitude of useful responses to the above questions. One thing seems certain, however: we just cannot stop longing. We are yearning animals, always urging, always leaning into the future, unceasingly reaching for more than we currently are or do or have. Even the cynics and pragmatists among us cannot help the longing, even if they reduce it to something that has no more significance or meaning than an instinct or biological reaction. They differ from the rest of the human family, not in their experience of the longing as such, but in their explanation of it and what they do with it.
Many have tasted the disappointment of assuming that our longing will be satisfied by this or that achievement, the wonderful spouse and bright, well-behaved, healthy children, the right job, the good address, the rewarding career; or that the longing will be satisfied by wealth and possessions, a "good" sex partner, respectability, travel, etc. Sometimes it drives us to do more of the same ultimately unsatisfying things; sometimes the disappointment drives us into despair or despair’s disguised and more sophisticated and socially acceptable expression, cynicism. The disappointment is frustrated longing – a matter of who we are, rather than what we do or have. While there may be much satisfaction in what we do or have, there is a longing that persists, a yearning that will not go away or settle for doing or having one more thing. The question remains: what do we really want?
LIKING AND WANTING
Suppose we were to distinguish between what we like and what we want, the first referring to the more general manifestations of longing, addressed in what we do and/or have; the second referring to the deeper manifestation of that same longing, and only addressed in our very beings. For example, I might like to pursue this career, marry that person, travel there, eat a certain type of food, associate with so-and-so, play tennis, wrack my brains over philosophical questions, cook pasta dishes, go to the day-night cricket games, etc. There may literally be hundreds of things I like. And part and parcel of a healthy life is knowing what I like and being able to satisfy at least some of those likes.
Imagine a world in which every one of my likes is satisfied. It would in fact be boring, probably sickeningly so. Thus, we know that hunger can sharpen our enjoyment of food, and absence can make the heart grow fonder, whereas constant satiation and persistent presence can be oppressive. It should come as no surprise to us that many of our children, raised in middle-class affluence, show a desire to shake off much of the middle class trappings when they are old enough to assert their independence. Similarly, it should not come as a surprise when a career-oriented person who has been highly functional, perhaps a workaholic, starts to question the validity of his/her life. We actually long for something much more than all those things we like. And having an abundance of the things we like will never give us what we want.
WHAT WE WANT GIVES BIRTH TO RELIGION
Religion, when it is faithful to its best possibilities, emerges out of this realm of the deepest longings of the human heart; religion provides structures that will facilitate the longing and assist us to find what our beings crave. One of the tragedies of recent centuries is the emergence of the mythology that religion is a sign of immaturity, an instrument of control, an obstacle to human growth and therefore something to be vigorously rooted out of society or, at best, left to the weak of mind and spirit.
People, at least in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century, can be forgiven for espousing this mythology – whether implicitly or explicitly. We, the agents of organised religion – particularly Christianity – are too often guilty as accused. We have reduced religion (ie Christianity) to a system that did preserve many people in a psychologically and morally immature state, and did exercise unwarranted and obstructive control over their lives. This is not the failure of religion as such (or Christianity), but the failure of those of us who misrepresented it. And the result of that misrepresentation might be far more tragic than the obvious rejection of our claims by the citizens of a post-modern world. Listen to the observation of one of the twentieth century’s best-known psychiatrists:
‘I have treated many hundreds of patients, the larger number being Protestants, a smaller number Jews and not more than five or six believing Catholics. Among all my patients in the second half of my life … there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that everyone of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.’ (C G Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 264)
THE WISDOM OF MONASTICISM
Monasticism is perhaps the most simple and profound expression of human existence, and the longing that besets the human heart. Archbishop Rembert Weakland expresses it well when he writes of Thomas Merton:
‘When a monk enters a monastery, what is asked of him is, "Are you truly seeking God?" The question isn’t, "Have you found God?" The question is, "Is he seeking God? Is his motivation highly involved in that search of who and what God is in relationship to us?" It’s not philosophical – it’s existential. And Merton, to me, was a great searcher. He was constantly unhappy, as all great searchers are. He was constantly ill at ease, he was constantly restless, as all searchers are - because that’s part of the search. And in that sense he was the perfect monk. Contemplation isn’t satisfaction – it’s search.’ (Rembert Weakland in Paul Wilkes, ed, Merton By Those Who Knew Him Best, Harper and Row, 1984, p.163)
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Give an example of your own experience that "enough is never enough".
What do you think it means to say "satisfaction contains the seeds of dissatisfaction".
Describe in your own words the distinction between "liking" and "wanting".
What do you think is going on when people "reject religion"?
Reflect on Jung’s observation. How might religion offer some healing?
Reflect on Weakland’s observation. In what way might "restlessness" be a good thing?
How would you describe your life now, compared with a much earlier period?
What has been and what is your experience of religion?
Describe in your own way the deepest longings of your heart.
In what sense might we say that God longs for us?