I was perusing the IM Archives the other day and came across a post I wrote two years ago. It was simple and short, based on a sentence by Dallas Willard I had read in a book on spiritual formation. I didn’t know what to make of it then, but it arrested me.
Well, the sentence got my attention again today, and I would like for us to discuss it.
Here are Willard’s words:
“It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.”
Hmm. Read that again. Slowly. Again.
Now let’s talk.
My first thought is, I am not sure I have ever been anything other than “dissatisfied.” How about you? For people my age, dissatisfaction, restlessness, and ennui came as natural as breathing. Were these ingredients in the bottles our mothers fed us, we members of the Baby Boom generation?
The Stones sang our generation’s chorus back in the early 1960’s — “I can’t get no… I can’t get no…” No satisfaction. The thought still reverberates within me some fifty years later.
Realistically, could anyone with half a brain look back on the tumultuous twentieth century and not be dissatisfied? Those of us born in the post-war era wondered how in the hell the shallow peace and prosperity of suburbia (which we nevertheless enjoyed, by the way — we are hypocrites just like everyone else) could blind us to the record of interminable blood lust, injustice, and corruption that was presented as a “century of progress.” Idealists all, we could see through those who called us to settle for the kind of satisfaction you could buy in a store or receive from an “authority.” We wore our dissatisfaction as a badge of honor, a mark of authenticity. We knew how to get real, man.
On a personal level, as a sinner-saint, a Christian who views the cross and Jesus’ call to carry it seriously, I’ve never been “satisfied.” Instead, I feel a sense of wanderlust, a hunger, what I hope is a “holy” dissatisfaction, a sign of burgeoning life within. I’m not content to be where I am; I want to go forward, to “follow” in response to grace’s invitation and provision.
At some times, moreover, as an introvert and a pessimist prone to depression, my dissatisfaction is pervasive, touching the prosaic details of my utterly human life. I am not happy when I’m alone. I am not happy with my family. Food doesn’t satisfy. There’s nothing to watch on TV. I don’t feel like reading anything. Nothing sounds fun or inviting. I just don’t like life in those moments and I may or may not be able to tell you why. Those are the times when I’m glad Jesus loves unhappy grouches, but even that is not a thought that brings much relief or satisfaction. I’m stuck in a querulous rut.
Most of my dissatisfaction is about me. I can’t stop “shoulding” on myself. I should lose weight. I should take more walks. I should use my time better. I should order my daily life and schedule more wisely. I should pay more attention to my wife. I should have a more disciplined prayer life. I should remember birthdays and anniversaries. I should eat healthier. I should clean up my clutter. The list is endless.
I envy those souls that seem to be content, their hearts and minds at rest, peacefully enjoying ordered lives. I have moments like that. Then my alarm goes off.
Some people just seem so damn responsible and fulfilled. They planned their lives, and somehow it’s working out. They built the nest egg, paid for the kids’ college, have the cabin at the lake or in the mountains, go away to the beach on Spring Break and come back all tanned, send out the glowing Christmas letter. They seem to have safely and successfully negotiated whatever minefields they faced with little trouble. Life is good.
It’s almost like they don’t even need Jesus. [Editor’s note: joke]
I can hear some of them saying, “Well of course we went through some tough times when we didn’t have much. But we worked hard and stuck to it and, with God’s help, it panned out.”
But it’s difficult for me to imagine any of them saying, “Yes, it’s good to be hungry. It’s good to be dissatisfied. It’s good to be at a place where you don’t have the answers, where you can’t solve your problems and satisfy the longing within.” Or if they do, they say it as a prelude to some subtle prosperity gospel message that proclaims (by faith) these negative experiences are good because they teach us to trust God, and when we do that, he blesses us.
On the other hand, when someone who is struggling with life says it’s good to be in the place of disorientation and dissatisfaction, it sounds like he is playing the victim card, like he’s making excuses for having little to show for the slipshod life he has lived, and claiming helplessness when it’s really just that he’s not willing to give proper attention and put forth the effort.
That’s the conservative, common-sense Midwest moralist in me speaking. That part of me continues to insist that everyone can and should seek satisfaction, that it is achievable, that we can do something to make it happen. Is not “the pursuit of happiness” in our very DNA?
But if you read Willard’s sentence again — “It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.” — you will find that he is suggesting something as countercultural as the wisdom of the Desert Fathers.
He is not saying dissatisfaction is a good place to be because of how it helps you in the long run, or because of the lessons you learn from it, or because God will use it to bring you to a better place. No, he is saying it’s good to be there and to stay there, being unable to figure it out or change it.
It’s not good to be in the darkness because it leads you to the light. It’s good to be in the dark. Period.
It’s not good to be in the wilderness because that’s how God leads you to the Promised Land. No, it’s just good to be in the wilderness! It’s good to make your bed on the desert sand night after night and wake up to the same old manna next day.
What forms us is not discovering the “answer.” What forms us is living wholly within the questions.
Qoheleth is a biblical character who gained wisdom by facing dissatisfaction and realizing he could not resolve it:
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
– Ecclesiastes 1:8
But many Christians avoid Ecclesiastes, not grasping how important it is to stare life squarely in the face and see it as it really is. Despite appearances, we cannot master or control it, and whatever “success” we experience (a blessing of God for which to be grateful, to be sure) is only temporary.
Regardless of how we live, we all end up six feet under and, within the relatively short span of a few generations, largely forgotten.
The work we do just gets passed on to others when we’re gone, and who knows what they will make of it?
None of us can ever truly see the “big picture” accurately and figure out “what it all means.” We may think there are transcendent reasons for the things that happen, but these are never clear to us and always subject to a variety of interpretations.
“It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.” Not only does living in the questions and refusing to insist upon answers form us, it also gives us credibility among others who don’t share the faith. We don’t defend Jesus or improve his reputation with those around us by making air-tight arguments, but by showing them that a person can be okay in a wilderness without satisfaction.
Peter Rollins says this will increasingly need to be the Church’s stance in a post-Christian, post-modern world. I think he says it well:
In short, the emerging community must endeavor to be a question rather than an answer and an aroma rather than food. It must seek to offer an approach that enables the people of God to become the parable, aroma and salt of God in the world, helping to form a space where God can give of God. For too long the Church has been seen as an oasis in the desert — offering water to those who are thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life, offering silence, space and desolation amidst the sickly nourishment of Western capitalism. It is in this desert, as we wander together as nomads, that God is to be found. For it is here that we are nourished by our hunger.