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The Secret of our Discontents: Reflections for the New Year The Secret of our Discontents: Reflections for the New Year
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-01-07 11:52:34
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“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.”
                                                                                 --George Eliot

“We are never living, but hoping to live.”
                                                                                 --Pascal

The likes of Eliot and Pascal pointed out to us a secret set within our hearts which quite often goes unnoticed and unmentioned. It is the desire for life as it was meant to be. It comes and goes at will. I think that Eliot and Pascal were in fact hinting at the very secret of our existence, for indeed life comes to all us, believers and non-believers, as a mystery of sorts. We all long for life but are not sure where to find it, we wonder: should we actually find life as it is meant to be, will it last? Experience tells us that it usually doesn’t.

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This secret longing seems incongruent with the routine life we find all around us. It would seem that an arduous journey is needed to find the life we long for, one worth living, as Socrates taught us. The tragedy of it all is that many of us give up the search in despair. It is a tragedy because to lose heart is to lose everything. Heart is of course symbolical for the deep center of ourselves, for this desire that we were born with and which is never completely satisfied. The greatest of spiritual guides seem to agree that our true identity, our reason for being, is to be found in this desire, i.e., our heart’s desire. It may be the clue to who we really are and why we are here. But it comes in surprising ways. When it comes and we think for a while that we are living a full life, those are the times when we wish that time stood still: moments of love and joy, of rest and quiet when all seems well with the world. But alas, those moments are rare indeed and don’t last very long. Soon enough the vicissitudes and struggles of life return upon us.

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Sometimes these moments go unrecognized as they unfold; we long for them retroactively. Their secret comes to us years later in our longing to relive them. Just think of your youth or the youth of your children who are now adults and out of the home, no longer living with you. The great poet Wordsworth, for one, caught a glimpse of the secret of his childhood and saw in it hints of realms unknown. He seems to teach us that if we fail to learn the lesson of these moments, even if retroactively, we will not be able to bring our hearts along in our life’s journey. If these moments of youth are not recovered, then the life we long for will always be fading from our view.

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But alas, we go on living for we must get on with things, we must make a living, as the saying goes, while sensing in quiet moments of the day a nagging within, a discontent of sorts, a hunger for something else. Having failed to solve the riddle of our existence, we assume that something must be wrong not with life but with us. We begin asking: what is wrong with me? We go around disappointed at life and feel guilty about it. Why cannot I not be happier with my marriage, my job, my friends? The fact is that even while we are doing other things and getting on with life, we still have an eye for the life we secretly long for.

Sometimes this longing is too much to bear, and so we bury it beneath frenzied thoughts and activities; we become what in modern sociology has been dubbed “an activist,” distracted with all kinds of noble causes that need to be fought and surmised to be supremely important. This activism merely dulls our immediate consciousness of living. It may go on for years but it can never be completely eradicated. It comes to us unexpectedly, in our dreams, our unexpressed hopes, in unguarded moments. That longing is indeed who we are. It is the essence of the human soul and the secret of our existence and without it nothing of human greatness was ever accomplished. Apart from desire, which is the unconscious motivation of much frantic activism, not a mountain has been climbed, an injustice fought, a symphony written or a love sustained. Were we to listen to it, it would save us from committing soul-suicide by becoming passive couch potatoes. It would prevent us from sacrificing our hearts on the altar of “getting by.”

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The secret that begins to solve this riddle of our lives is this: life as usual is not the life we truly want, not the life we need, not the life we were made for. Were we to listen to our hearts, to what G.K. Chesterton called our “divine discontent,” we would discover the secret of our existence. As he wrote in Orthodoxy: “We have come to the wrong star…The true happiness is that we don’t fit. We come from somewhere else. We have lost our way. Dante too begins the journey of the Divine Comedy as if waking from a stupor in utter confusion in the middle of his life, having lost “the straight road.” But he does not say “my life” but “our life’s journey.”

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Indeed, the meaning of our lives is revealed through experiences that may seem odd but we wish they would last forever because they intimate to us that we were meant to live in a world of beauty and wonder, intimacy and adventure all of our days. Nathaniel Hawthorne had it on target too when he wrote that “Our Creator would never have made such lovely days, and given us the deep hearts to enjoy them, above and beyond all thought, unless we were meant to be immortal.”

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So, the popular dictum “all good things come to an end” is actually a lie, for even our troubles and our heartbreaks tell us something about our true destiny. “This is not the way it was supposed to be” on the other hand, hints at the truth. As Pascal reminds us in his Pensèes: “Man is so great that his greatness appears even in knowing himself to be miserable. A tree has no sense of its misery. It is true that to know we are miserable is to be miserable, but to know we are miserable is also to be great. Thus all the miseries of man prove his grandeur; they are miseries of a dignified personage, the miseries of a dethroned monarch…What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean, unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything with his reach?”

I suppose, what Pascal is trying to remind us of is the simple truth that we abandon the most important journey of our lives when we abandon longing. We leave our hearts by the side of the road and head off in the direction of “fitting in,” “getting by” becoming a productive and useful citizen, a conformist, an entrepreneur amassing wealth, or what have you. But a crucial question arises here: whatever we may gain in the process of abandoning desire: money, prestige, power, positions, others’ approval, or even the alleviating of our discontents, is it really worth it? As the gospel of Matthew aptly reminds us: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16: 26).


      
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Rose2016-01-08 05:35:44
Dear Lino Mom the philosopher said it right, la vita e' una frecatura,


Emanuel Paparella2016-01-08 14:05:36
Indeed Rose, but Dante does not call the Divine Comedy a tragedy (or a "frecatura," as our common mother liked to put it) but a "commedia" meaning that if lived and interpreted well it will end well...That's a big if, of course for as Socrates, the father of philosophy, put it: "the unexamined life is not worth living." The fact that mom called it a "frecatura" means that she was not just living but was also examining her life, albeit expressing some disappointments. That's why people cry at the death of a dear one: they are expressing regrets and disappointments in the relationship with the person who just passed.


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