In a recent article, Eddie Siebert, S.J. tells the story of an 82-year-old doctor he knew, a man who had practiced medicine for over fifty years but confessed to never really liking medicine. So why did he become a doctor? His parents wanted it. He really wanted to write. Sound familiar?
Of course, he could have done both, as William Carlos Williams did, as Walker Percy did, among others in a line going back to Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century. But that is not the point.
The point of the article is to look at our basic human restlessness and dissatisfaction and see what value they might have. No matter how great a job or home or family or whatever we have, we invariably find something to complain about, some fault to find. We find a certain pleasure, even happiness, in being dissatisfied, knowing that "it could be better" somewhere else or with someone else. The striving is all.
The Boston College theologian Michael Himes, quoted by Siebert, says that dissatisfaction is a good thing. Why? Well, it "moves us forward, makes us try new things, and deepens our perceptions about the world and ourselves. . . .That restlessness we all feel is a good thing and gets us closer to becoming the person we've always been."
So we realize our full selfhood or potential or identity as persons in striving for joy, even while unconsciously realizing how elusive joy is.
I was reminded of a recent biography I have been reading of Winston Churchill. I was struck by the anxious drive of the young Winston, his burning ambition to fulfill what he saw, grandly, as his destiny. And although he made many enemies in the process of achieving greatness as a leader, he certainly fulfilled his earthly destiny as a leading statesman of the 20th century. His life story reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt's, among many others: men driven by dissatisfaction to overcome handicaps and become the person they have always been.
The great tragedy in many people's lives is that they realize, too late, that they have lived the wrong life, never achieving much happiness. When Ivan Ilych, in Tolstoi's great story, has such a realization on his death bed, he also comes to an enlightened insight that it is still not too late to make a change: he feels a sense of love, which gives his life purpose and meaning. Until then, Ivan Ilych had lived a smugly satisfied life; he finally found the wisdom in being dissatisfied at the end, as his soul comes alive.
Happy are those who find joy in their dissatisfaction before it's too late.