Saturday, January 12, 2013

Happily Unsatisfied

One of the many pleasures of having congenial roommates is that there is no need to hunt for things to do come Friday night.  For that matter, there's no need to hunt for things to do come Monday night ... or Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  Between the washing of dishes after a decently timely meal and the going to bed at an indecently late hour, all sort of fascinating topics arise: from hats to denim skirts to the columns of Agony Aunts; from Mali's wars to the legitimacy of "qui" in Scrabble, with the occasional dip into the more lighthearted questions, such as how soon the Day of Judgement will come. 

Last Thursday night was like that.  I think it must have been the pie.  There is something satisfying about a pie: it is a very civilized dish, well-clothed with its top crust, its contents decently peeled and chopped, its shape as round and unchanging as the Os Thurber thought wonderful and the circles Chesterton suspected of bad philosophy.  It is a happy kind of dish; and unsurprisingly, my roommate and I began to talk about happiness.

It is common to have all the necessary ingredients for happiness, and stranger thing altogether to be happy.  There is an impermanence about pies, shoes, moods, jobs, and even books and roommates, that can provoke dismay in souls of the more fearful temperament.  Yes, I'm happy with all of this now; but will it all be here tomorrow?  Everything is going so terribly well that it can't possibly last.  Sooner or later the other shoe has got to drop.  One doesn't quite deserve this glorious situation anyway; and even if one did, the stasis desired is not among the standard qualities found in the affairs of men.

That is of course a cowardly and poisonous way of looking at things; but the taking of such a viewpoint is hardly a decision, or even a disease: it is the natural instinct of a certain kind of mind, as C.S. Lewis famously recorded.  The best medicine for the unhealthy predilection is of course just the kind of carpe diem attitude that would be destructive in a different system: the very kind of momentous living that is suggested by the Buddhist and accomplished by the saint.  For a naturally sunny and sanguine disposition, or one that was slothful with phlegm, the adoption of so spiritual an outlook might be imprudent; for a choleric or melancholic disposition, it is salubrious and in some sense sobering.  It is hard to be passionately possessed by the future when one is passionately pleased by a pie.

And yet ... and yet.  There is something a little distressing in a body who is simply pleased with the pie, and lets it go at that.  Even if we are supposed to "rejoice," "be merry," even—be happy—aren't we also supposed to be ill at ease?  And how does one square the two descriptions: the one ordaining that our hearts will be restless, and the other bidding them not to be troubled?  How can we at once be happy and dissatisfied?

The answer must lie in better look at the words themselves—a look that is no mere semantic trick; for there is a world of difference between being dissatisfied and being unsatisfied.  To be dissatisfied suggests an active dislike of (or even a revulsion from) one's condition; to be unsatisfied merely means that one knows it is not yet complete, not yet full.  Non consummatum est.  There is no sorrow in being unfinished—there should indeed be considerable joy if one knows that the progress is ongoing, and moments of satisfaction when a certain new height is achieved—but there is not rest.  Tantum placet, sed placens, haec via ad astra.

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