What moves us? Why do we keep going, always striving to better ourselves, our circumstances and the conditions of others? It isn’t completely rational. We all die in the end anyway so why does it seem so important for us to be here and give more and more? Why do we take life so seriously that we work so hard to not only maintain it, but improve it?
This question has troubled human beings for as long as we had the capacity to be troubled by such things. Luckily our care for life and its betterment seems to be impressed upon us to an extent that makes it unlikely that we will stop going on regardless of what answers we find.
One way to look at this question is the way that the American Pragmatist William James did. It is the experience of dissatisfaction that moves us ever onward. Think about the feeling of dissatisfaction – pure dissatisfaction of any kind. It could be hunger, or loneliness; it could be a puzzle that you can’t solve, an idea that you don’t understand or simply boredom. It could be an injustice, a wrong needing to be righted. Any of these things and many, many more can leave us with a feeling of dissatisfaction.
Now think about the feeling. It has as part of its quality a certain uncomfortable quality. It is like an itch that has to be scratched. Part of the feeling is simply compulsion. You feel like you cannot leave it as it is. You must strive to alleviate the dissatisfaction and return to a satisfied state. This mechanism is what James felt drove human activity and human development.
If you feel satisfied, what do you do? Nothing. If you feel satisfied you stop activity. You feel no compulsion to do anything because everything is fine the way it is – at least to you. In states of deep satisfaction you literally don’t have any energy to do anything. I am not talking about laziness or inertia. This isn’t about not wanting to do anything or feeling apathetic. It is about contentment – contentment does not drive you to action. Discontentment and dissatisfaction does.
Another way to think about how human beings evolve is to think about it in terms of the evolution of what makes us feel dissatisfied. We can feel dissatisfied because we are hungry and we can feel dissatisfied because there are children all over the world who are hungry. These are two completely different levels of dissatisfaction and generally we consider people who are compelled to action by concerns with our world more highly developed than those who are only dissatisfied by personal concerns.
And so each of us can look for ourselves and see how true this is. Is it accurate to say that all of your actions are – or can be seen as – a response to some dissatisfaction or other? And if so what kinds of things compel you to act? What are you dissatisfied with and what does that say about the kind of person you are?
During this Holiday Season, dedicated as it is to goodwill toward all, this seemed like a good philosophical question to pose. And with that I wish all of my readers a happy holiday season filled with tidings of good cheer. May your dissatisfactions grow ever higher.
Dear Jeff, deep down, isn’t the idea that the main motor of evolution is dissatisfaction in itself very… dissatisfying ? and what about the idea that the idea about dissatisfaction is dissatisfying, isn’t dissatisfying as well ? and so on ? Among physicists, it is always said that the few schools of excellency that have existed over the planet over the last centuries, the few “sceniuses”, were places where the weather is bad, and it is tough to live so that people push themselves to evolve. It is also said that a time of crisis is the time when evolution… Read more »
Part of this is probably a matter of semantics. A desire is after all a form of dissatisfaction. I was using the word dissatisfacation in its most generic form, which means that dissatisfaction can come in positive (love) and negative (hate) forms. In one case your dissatisfaction comes from being pulled toward another possibility in the other it comes from being pushed away by the present conditions. Evolutionary Love was Charles Peirce’s conception of the ultimate universal desire. On your last point I think that the “idea” of evolutionary love is very satisfying and leaves me feeling no compulsion to… Read more »
Thanks Jeff. The way I read this is the dissatisfaction is critical to providing us with the emotional requirement to evolve, because we don’t act purely on the basis of our thoughts. Once our passions have been stirred, we will act, but then our minds need to intervene to provide our passions with a direction. Thats where Catherine’s ideas (post above) come in. The heart provides the yearning (the motor), the head provides the direction (the steering). There is an old Hasidic tale where the men of the town capture the evil inclination and lock it up in the basement… Read more »
A friend of mine in AA used to say “I wish you all the pain you can handle!” and this is what he was pointing to.
Hello, all! I can remember reading and being clued about the concept of becoming enlightenened and it instilled in me a desire and yearning to know it, to attain it. It was a deep emotional feeling giving me a vision of a way of being so desirable and cool and I set about it in a very naive way, almost like an intellectual exercise but adopting all kinds of breathing, meditation, reading and seeking teachers in a very earnest way. Fortuitously, I came to experience a series of Awakenings that made me convinced I had become Enlightened, only to discover… Read more »
Great to read you all !
I must say I feel perfectly happy at the moment…
I wish you all the same
My dissatisfaction is always the darkness before my next breakthrough of creativity and expansion It is all in service of the One!
I thought it would be appropriate to post this entirely instead of paraphrasing it . KEEP DISCONTENT ALIVE Is not discontent essential in our life, to any question, to any inquiry, to probing, to finding out what is the real, what is Truth, what is essential in life? I may have this flaming discontent in college; and then I get a good job and this discontent vanishes. I am satisfied, I struggle to maintain my family, I have to earn a livelihood and so my discontent is calmed, destroyed, and I become a mediocre entity satisfied with things of life,… Read more »