I read an article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic which really captured my attention. The title of the article is The Satisfaction Trap by Arthur C. Brooks. The author begins the article with a conversation he had with his teenage daughter about the quest all of us as human beings are on to find satisfaction and hold on to it. Brooks tells her “Satisfaction…is the greatest paradox of human life. We crave it, we believe we can get it, we glimpse it and maybe even experience it for a brief moment, and then it vanishes. But we never give up on our quest to get and hold on to it.” As Brooks’ daughter is taking in what he’s saying to her, this is their conversation. “So life is just a rat race, and we’re doomed to an existence of dissatisfaction?” she asked. “That sucks.” “It does suck,” I said. “But we’re not doomed.” I told her we can beat this affliction if we work to truly understand it—and if we’re willing to make some difficult changes to the way we live.”
I was all in by this point, I needed to see where this would lead. Brooks explains we are wired this way. We seek satisfaction in varieties of things, but we soon discover nothing satisfies us long term. Newly acquired things, homes, cars, stuff, only satisfy temporarily. We climb the ladder of success trying to reach the next rung, because surely when we get there we will find what will truly be lasting satisfaction. We find though, the next rung only temporarily brings us what we’re seeking, and then its gone. Things and stuff just can’t quite cut it for us.
We seem to think our satisfaction lies in getting everything we want. We discover our wants just keep increasing because we just cannot be at peace, we always want more. Brooks tells us the secret lies in decreasing our wants. Well, that’s easier said than done. All around us is a whole world filled with people telling us all about all the stuff which will make us happy. Our friends and relatives fit in here too, they tell us about the stuff that will make them happy, we take the bait and begin imagining all the things we could add to our lives that would make us happy. Its just a vicious unending cycle.
I was trying figure out just when I’ve been the happiest, the most content, the most satisfied. Its never been when I had the ideal home, or my most favorite car, or enough money in the bank. None of those things have emerged to satisfy me long term. Being a preacher, of course I thought I would consult the scriptures and see if they revealed any clear-cut answers. In Psalm 107: 9 we’re told, “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” And in Proverbs 19:23 we hear, “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” These verses spoke to me, but they couldn’t quite help me put my finger on what it would take to be completely satisfied.
I reviewed my life and tried to figure out when I had ever been totally and completely satisfied. All of a sudden it came to me. The most satisfaction I’ve ever experienced has been when I was able to do something for someone else. It was in meeting someone else’s need that my greatest satisfaction has been found. My life has not been lived perfectly, far from it. But there have been glimpses of the Divine in times I’ve spent with people I’ve loved. I was able to give to them a piece of me, knowing I was giving it without expectation of it being returned.
Toward the end of my mother’s life, she spent some time in a nursing home. She was not happy about it, as you can imagine. She was pretty much wheelchair bound when not in her bed. I arrived and found her sitting up in her room, looking despondent. It was lunch time. So I said to her, “how about we go to the cafeteria for lunch.” She mumbled she wasn’t hungry. “Let’s go anyway,” I said, “we’ll make it an adventure.” I wheeled her out of her room and briskly down the hall. The hall had a slight decline to it as it led to the cafeteria. I gathered a little speed and told her it was like we were on a rollercoaster! She liked that a little, I think. There was a small smile creeping up on her face. We got to the cafeteria and the aide brought her lunch to the table. She just sat there looking at it and turning her nose up. Wasn’t what she wanted. I coaxed her, as she had done me when I was a little boy. I picked up the spoon and dipped it into the soup and headed for her mouth, “here it comes,” I said, “open up!” She did. And she finished her lunch because she enjoyed me feeding her. I took her back to her room and got her settled into her bed. She looked at me all serious like and said, “Tommy, you know I’m coming to the end of my journey. Nothing has ever brought me happiness like being with your father and you and your brother.” I told her I knew that. I also said we don’t ever know what the future holds, but we do know God is there to see us through to the end and beyond. I said, “you know momma, in church recently they sang a song I understand was sung at Lyndon Johnson’s funeral by the great opera singer Leontyne Price. Its words bring me comfort when I’m feeling down. Its Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” She didn’t recognize it. So I sang a bit of it to her. I’m a horrible singer and I know it. I usually can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But I sang it to her anyway. She hung on every word because it was her baby boy singing to her. I left there that day, filled with satisfaction, knowing I had brought real comfort and cheer to my mom. Every time I think of that time, I can’t help but smile. That was pure satisfaction for me.
Two last scriptures come to mind as I think about how we find real lasting satisfaction in our lives. 1 Timothy 6:6-7, “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” And Matthew 6:33, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Our contentment is not drawn from the things of this world, for they cannot go with us when we depart. When Jesus spoke about seeking the kingdom of God, I cannot help but believe it means for us to seek out ways to give ourselves in love to others. In the end, its only real love that brings lasting satisfaction. Loving God by loving yourself and loving others.
Arthur Brooks was right about one thing, seeking satisfaction is a trap, the more I find myself engaging in the act of loving, the more I want to love. Its the only thing I’ve found that really lasts.
Your fellow traveler on the Way,