The following is a paraphrased version of a true conversation I had with my son this past weekend at the Mall of America.
“I want Drilla Grilla,” my son said. My son, like any healthy seven-year-old American boy, always wants something (or several somethings). Normally I talk to him about what it is, why he wants it, why it’s cool, etc. That day, for some reason, I tried something different.
“And after you get Drilla Grilla, you’ll want something else.”
“Yeah,” he answered immediately. “Probably Stink Bomb.”
“But even after you get that – even after you get all the Skylanders – you’ll want something else. You had all the original Skylanders, and they just made new ones. After these, they’ll make more. They just want to make sure you keep buying things.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a tinge of regret. “I never got all the Skylander Giants.”
“Do you think it’s possible to get everything you want?”
He mulled this, then said, “I don’t know. Probably.”
“Did you know that no matter how much you have, or how much money you have, you’ll always want more?”
He gave me a skeptical look.
“If you had as much money as Daddy,” I said, “would that be enough?”
“But I want more money than I have. Did you know even the richest people – with billions of dollars – aren’t happy with what they have? They try to find bigger and bigger things they can buy. You can see them on TV, trying to buy whole islands.”
His mouth dropped. This was completely unreal to him.
“My point is, you will always want more than you have. Always. You might be happy for awhile when you get something you’re after, but something else will always come along. If you don’t want to always feel that way, you have to look at what you do have and figure out what makes you happy. That’s why we’re always trying to say we should be happy with what we have.”
“Yeah,” my son said. He gave a long pause. “I really want Drilla Grilla.”
I’ve given a lot of thought to this whole idea of never being happy with what you have. I’m no theology scholar, but I know there are a lot of philosophies and religions dedicated in some way or another to getting around it. In Christianity and Islam (spoken in the same breath!) you’re supposed to realize everything in the world is ephemeral and the real treasure is in “Heaven.” In Buddhism you’re supposed to reach total denial of self and thus eliminate your desires. I’m not Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim, but I’ve always thought recognizing and mitigating this constant discontent was a laudable goal. But this morning, without warning, something in my brain pointed out a sudden, glaring conflict with this idea and another set of ideas I’ve recently internalized.
This other set of ideas is pretty simple: I want to be okay with who I am. As a person, but also as a human being. As a human being, I get hungry. I get horny. I get sleepy. There are all manner of natural urges that are constantly clamoring for attention against my intellect. I spent a long, long time believing that some of those urges were evil manifestations from the devil. (I’ll give you one guess which urge ranked at the top.) I’m over that now. Those urges are human. They’re part of me and [nearly] everyone has them. They’re essential to the propagation of the species. We evolved that way. I can’t stamp them out anymore than I can make the sun rise in the west. Sure, I can manage them, and it’s important to do so. Too much of any one indulgence is always bad. But there’s no need to be ashamed of the traits that make me human.
The conflict then becomes: what if constant discontent is a trait that makes us human?
I told my son last weekend that we all always want more; that none of us are ever truly satisfied. I recognize that it’s pretty pompous of me to speak for the entire human species, but when you’re a dad, sometimes you’re put into that role. I’m sure there have been a few exceptions – I’m talking less about the Jesuses and the Buddhas here than I am about far-flung cultures that maybe aren’t as consumer-oriented as mine – but by and large, I think that discontent, that constant wanting, is something most humans have.
So if it’s ingrained, how do I mesh that with my other belief – that I shouldn’t be ashamed of or seek to deny the things that are ingrained in me as a human?
As I was writing “I can manage them, and it’s important to do so,” above, I momentarily thought, “Ah, I’ve figured this out. It’s just like all the other urges – it just needs to be managed.” Now, three whole paragraphs later, I’m not so sure. The other urges I mentioned can be sated. They always resurge, but they can be sated. I’m not sure The Constant Discontent can be, at least not in the same way. The problem is, sometimes we want what we can’t have – and we still try to get it. Sure, if you get the Skylander you’re after, you might be happy for a little bit. But you’ll always want another one.
Devil’s Advocate says: “Isn’t that just like eating or having sex? For most people, they do it, they’re happy, then they’ll get the urge to do it again.”
I’d argue it’s not. The Constant Discontent morphs. It gets more ambitious. If we get all the little things, we want the medium things. If we get the medium things, we want the big things. If we get those, we want the huge things. If you look at the spectrum of the human species and the strata of wealth, this is what you see. It’s not the same way with the other urges. “Last time I only ate a quarter-pound burger; this time I must eat a half-pound!” “Last night I slept eight hours… tonight I must sleep ten!”
Part of the joy I’ve discovered in not shaming myself about my human urges is that I can actually enjoy satisfying them. It’s pleasant. My entire psyche was designed to take pleasure in the things my lizard-brain is telling me to do. But again… not so with the Constant Discontent. The things you acquire grow stale. And… I’m not sure how to explain this, but I’ll give it my best shot… sometimes I just get tired of wanting all the time.
“Maybe it’s not a human trait,” Devil’s Advocate supplies. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe you don’t need to be less human – maybe you need to be less American.” This is a tantalizing argument, except that the phenomenon is recognized around the world, and in texts that pre-date America by quite a bit. America might have managed to focus the Constant Discontent to a laser-like focus, but I don’t think we started it.
If you think about the human species and everything it’s accomplished, I think a lot of it can be traced back to two main traits of our species: 1) Curiosity (and the intellect necessary to satisfy it), and 2) The Constant Discontent. We grow and grow and grow. We spread everywhere. We encounter problems – lack of water, disease, inconvenience – and we set out to conquer them. Having the intelligence to do so isn’t enough. We need the drive to do it, too, and I think that’s where the Constant Discontent comes in. We’ve done a lot of damage this way – global climate disruption, genocide, causing the extinction of species. But always wanting more isn’t always bad. It’s produced some great things, too – antibiotics, the occasional peaceful society, art, and (this is me, here) video games.
I’d love to wrap this up with a little bow and bring it full circle to a conclusion. I’d love to say, “I don’t think the human species’ Constant Discontent will ultimately lead it to the destruction of the planet it lives on. I’m sure we as a species will redirect our Discontent to help us get at things we really want – like survival of our species.” But the sad thing is, I’m not sure that’s true. One thing I’ve realized (which led to my atheism) is that just because I wish something were true, doesn’t mean it is true. I see evidence that we can get our Discontent under control on a global level… but I also see evidence that we can’t.
All that musing, and I’m left no closer to any answers than I was when I started. All I can do is keep chewing on it, and try to figure out what it means for me personally. I don’t call it “Constant Discontent” lightly. I do think it’s really constant. Fundamental. In some sense, it reminds me of a more scientific/agnostic version of Original Sin. I don’t like being discontent all the time. I don’t like that every time I get something, I think about something else I want. A common theme in religion is that denial of these wants can bring peace. Peace sounds nice… but at the same time, it’s not the only thing I want, either. : P Desire, in its own way, is also fulfilling.
I’ll keep chewing on it; maybe there’s an answer, maybe there’s not. It’s ironic, in a sense, that I even want an answer.
But my son’s birthday is coming up. While I try to figure it out, I’d better get online and hunt down a Drilla Grilla.