Friday, December 30, 2011

On Being Unfulfilled

I took my Christmas tree down on Wednesday. Pine needles still gather on my socks as I pad around the place, and the tree itself lies on the curb, not yet claimed by the City of Durham Curbside Yard Waste Collection Service. I had an odd, sad feeling taking it down. It makes me sad, half empty, the impermanence of things, especially splendor, even so shabby-chic a splendor as my six-foot tree was. The inability of things or people to last, to fill up a life, except for too brief shining spasms of delight and insight, is not pessimism; it is a fact. Every passion is soon enough dimmed and extinguished by everyday reality, dwindling resources, age, adversity, sickness, and death. Even adopting a life style, or philosophy, or religion has offered, at best, only a passing sense of satisfaction and quiet.

The day, alas, cannot be seized. But I must do my best, anyway.

I am not somebody who buys books or attends seminars on how to find fulfillment and purpose. Fulfillment and purpose are never found; they are made. I make mine from the real stuff of life--the stuff life throws at me or throws me into. And they don't last for long. Well, eventually I will find  quiet fulfillment in death, but in life I get flashing sensations of achievement, ecstasy, camaraderie, glamor, rage, lust, loneliness, and so forth. Even peace, boredom, and routine, which almost by definition create illusions of everlastingness, pass quickly. Rapid change could work well as a definition of life. My life, anyway. I am not one to be too settled, satiated, satisfied, filled up.

There is a way to live one's life amid the world's inadequacies. The trick, of course, is learning to accept them. I am content with nonfulfillment and change--stoically content by necessity to see things that are beautiful, wise, gratifying, and loved slip from grasp. Nothing is gained by discontent, which takes up space needed for new days of new feelings. Andre Gide once wrote that one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. I want a lifetime of discovering new lands.

I love pineapple. But what if I ate a pineapple, let's say two whole pineapples--and then felt ideally fulfilled. Eternally fulfilled. Then I might never again enjoy the taste of other things--chili peppers, vanilla, brisket, cilantro, gin, lime, or even another pineapple. The body transforms what it takes in as energy, disposes or stores what it does not need, and makes room for more. I suppose I could still commit to eating only pineapple for the rest of my days, but I don't want to do that. Life may not offer eternal satisfaction and joy, but it does offer variety ... and change.

Of course, there's risk, too. If you let a good thing slip through your fingers, who's to say that the next thing to touch them will not be painful, even deadly? I am not so much a stoic that I am free of emotion. Last month I sobbed convulsively after I had my dog Ripley euthanized. What can replace Ripley? Nothing. But life moves on. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, "So it goes." My friend Dutch used to say, "You play the hand that's dealt you." Complaining about the hand I held never did me or anyone any good. Neither did clinging to it, forever refusing to pick up the next card. Nor imagining a heavenly Hoyle deck that gives a winning hand to everybody who wants it.

As one of my favorite poets Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "Maybe all the dragons in our lives are really princesses waiting to see us be, just once, beautiful and brave." Death--or its pale second, a life lived in dogged commitment to safe and dependable routine, in refusal of the tidal motions of reality--requires no beauty or courage. Still, it's good not to be overly idealistic or ambitious. I cannot fix the world. Perhaps I can have an impact on reality, on history, perhaps not. Perhaps my life is getting better, or worse, or it stays the same. My optimistic or pessimistic thoughts have little effect on how things turn out in the end. It's hard to slay dragons without taking out a few princesses along the way. But we must always strive to be beautiful and brave.

Is the glass half empty or half full?

This week I reread one of my favorite books, Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism (1759). In it Voltaire satirizes philosophy's attempt to stabilize a careening world of reality, especially since much of life's disorder results from people attempting to impose a too narrow and ungenerous idea of order upon it. He particularly satirizes Leibniz's optimistic philosophy, a great influence on what Herbert Marcuse later dubbed "happy consciousness." In the closing chapters our hero reunites with his long-lost true love, only to find her ugly and repulsive, broken by life's interminable misfortunes. He has sought love, understanding, and wealth--gained them and lost them. "What a world we live in!" his disillusioned friend Pangloss exclaims. But there is no choice but to live in it.

They meet a Muslim farmer with a small plot of land, who has no idea of current events or politics, He and his four children live simply and hand-make sorbet and kaymak from the fruits of their garden: oranges, lemons, limes, pineapple, and pistachio. He tells his anxious visitors, "Work keeps us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need." He and his children treat the guests kindly and generously. Candide's final revelation is that simple, gratifying work is superior to theories, public affairs, epistemologies, and even positive thinking. "We must cultivate our garden," our hero says at the end.

The glass is ... unfulfilled. That's the good news. Meanwhile, we must cultivate our garden.


  1. Actually, according to my learned artist friend, Michael Craig-Martin ( who apart from being an excellent artist will go down in art history as being the principal teacher and mentor of Damien Hirst - no comment)what you are depicting above is in fact an oak tree.

  2. I looked him up--and the work in question--brilliant (by which I mean, in particular, the accompanying interview). I call this sentence "The Last of the Mohicans."



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