After a delightful dinner with friends, somebody brings out a tray of cookies. I help myself to one, and then to another. I am now full, but I still want to eat another. Why? How can this be possible?
All men by nature desire happiness. But the happiness which we desire is not a certain level of pleasure or delight. The thirst of the human soul, as Joseph Pieper (following Thomas Aquinas) explains in Happiness and Contemplation, is for an infinite drink. Pieper quotes Andre Gide who expresses the fathomless yearning of the soul when he states that “the terrible thing is that we can never make ourselves drunk enough.”
The reason is that when a person has met every possible physical need and desire of the body, when every earthly good has been attained (for instance, conjugal love, romance, friendship, intellectual stimulation, familial stability and joy)…when every realizable longing has been satisfied, it is yet possible and not unusual to be restless–to find an unexpected sense of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness.
The soul is yet a blank. The things which my heart has longed for prove not enough for the longings of my heart.
This restlessness, which is part and parcel to the human condition in this life, is directive of the heart to God, to the virtues of faith, hope and love, which long for a time in which we shall behold him face to face, and when infinite longing shall meet an infinite and complete good. That is, we await our true happiness, a happiness which is in no way lacking and before and in which we can want nothing more.
Our sin is not that we fail to find satisfaction in earthly things or even total happiness in God right now, but that we expect to find the complete thing, the great fulfillment here. In reaching for that extra cookie, in pursuing yet another disordered impulse, we secretly plea with the finite to provide something boundless. We worship the creature as the creator.
There is a trap which the Christian, but perhaps all people are prone to fall into, to side step this issue of unfulfillment. The notion that virtue is its own reward can be vastly over weighted. For Thomas, as his interpreters all concur, virtue, here moral virtue, does indeed provide a kind of happiness, but one which is partial. The happiness that comes with virtuous living is not one, as Pieper puts, that we can “live on.” True and complete happiness for the Christian, that happiness in which we can rest and be fully satisfied in, remains ultimately a gift. The work of virtue, while rewarding is a work preparatory to and disposing to this ultimate happiness, but not one which can provide or create such fulfillment, delightful and rich as it may be. To find an emptiness in even the best lived life is not necessarily a sign of failure, but of expectation and need.
Perhaps the virtuous man, most of all, knows that he is not and cannot be the source of his own ultimate joy.
There is a holy unrest which we are called to, and paradoxically in acknowledging, in honoring this unrest, we find greater pleasure, greater satisfaction in the things of the world, even as we live out a kind of heartbreak–love sickness of one whose beloved is across the sea. Such love sickness is not all bitterness. It is the hope and courage which turns festival into expectation and not into an end in itself.
I can always choose to have just one more cookie, but in so choosing I forget where I am and who I am. I can choose to forgo a cookie, and practice remembering my true country, and in that mystery, I become available to make something known of that country, of true happiness, in the place I live right now.