Life Is Unsatisfying: A Reason to Believe

By L. Alfred James

Life Is Unsatisfying A Reason to BelieveHave you ever noticed how unsatisfying most pleasures in life are?1 To be sure, while we are anticipating some particular pleasure, while it remains in the future, our expectation makes it seem like it will be great, perhaps completely fulfilling. However, once we actually experience said pleasure the fulfillment (if there is any at all) is very short-lived. This is the undisputed pattern of life. But why? Why is this?

Consider your own life and the lives of your friends: Before you married that person you were enamored with, got that job you were fantasizing about, accomplished that goal you had set for yourself, or bought that house you were dreaming of, you actually felt—and maybe even said to yourself—that when you would did so you would finally be fulfilled, finally be happy, your desire would be fully satisfied. However, when you actually did (marry that person, get that job, accomplish that goal, or buy that house, etc.) you were not lastingly happy. You soon found yourself discontent again. And this has happened over, and over, and over again in life.

The pleasures of this life could be compared to a mirage in a desert. Imagine you are a thirsty desert wanderer. You look off into the distance and think you see water. “Finally! Something that will quench this burdensome thirst!” But when you get there you find out it was just an illusion, and your thirst continues.

That is what life is like. A desert with mirages that fail to satisfy. We look off into the future and see something that we think will satisfy us. But when we get it, whatever it is, we almost immediately find we are not really satisfied.

A Case Study: Deion Sanders

Consider the example of Deion Sanders, a member of the NFL hall of fame. He not only had a sterling NFL career, but also a sterling career in Major League Baseball. He not only won the Super Bowl with both the 49ers and the Cowboys, he is also the only person ever to hit a major league home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week. Sanders is also the only person to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. In his autobiography he discusses how, no matter what he accomplished and no matter what kind of pleasure was available to him, he was always dissatisfied:

I was at the top of my game and I had everything that anybody could ever want, but nothing changed…So I would buy myself another car, more suits, more expensive clothes, more jewelry, more of everything, and I already knew before I got out of the mall that it wasn’t going to make me happy. I tried throwing myself into my career, sports, trying to see how far I could go, and when I achieved every goal I could think of, I was right back where I started. Empty, empty, empty.2

This exact same story has been played out in the lives of countless people, especially those who are extremely successful. Whether a person is extremely rich, or smart, or funny, or famous, it doesn’t matter. The universal human experience is this: When any goal or any pleasure is off in the distance, we typically think we will be satisfied when we actually get it. But when we do get it, we find that we are not at all satisfied.

And it doesn’t matter what the anticipated pleasure is: a career, entrance into a school, having a relationship, something that we buy, etc. Almost as soon as it is in our grasp the mirage fades and we find we are not happy.

Moreover, it doesn’t matter what we believe. We might be Christians, we might even be atheists, but we still feel this existential dissatisfaction gnawing at us. The Christian theologian St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless.” The atheist Bertrand Russell wrote, “The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain, a curious wild pain, a searching for something beyond what the world contains.” Likewise, the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre once admitted, “There comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, ‘Is this all there is?'”

So I ask my question again. Why is this the human experience? Why is it that we are always pursuing things that we think will fulfill us, obtaining them, and finding out that they do not fulfill us?

A Poor Response

The most common response to this question runs something like this: “We are unsatisfied because we are poor, or uneducated, or politically oppressed, or hindered from having career success.” If this is your answer you should know that it is a very poor response. First of all, do you not realize, when you say this, you are actually doing the same thing again? You are saying, “When we get money, education, political power, or career success then we will be satisfied.” You are completely missing the point. We find that we are actually not satisfied when we get these things.

Second, it is precisely when people are rich, educated, free, or successful that they most acutely feel this gnawing, this angst, this unfulfilled desire.

In fact, people who are seriously deficient or hindered in some key area of life never seem to talk about this existential angst. Think about it: People are enslaved or politically oppressed only focus on gaining their freedom. People who are poor only focus on getting enough money to get by. Neither of these kinds of people write about this lingering despair. And people who are mentally handicapped express no concern at all about existential issues like this.

Life Is Unsatisfying A Reason to BelieveOn the contrary, those who most acutely feel this angst are those who are the most intelligent, educated, sophisticated, gifted, and wealthy people in our culture. It is the artists, the singers, the performers, the authors, the poets, and the musicians who write about it, take drugs to avoid feeling it, and (sadly) commit suicide when they can’t get over it.

So I ask my question again. Why is this the human experience? Why is it that we are always pursuing things that we think will fulfill us, obtaining them, and finding out that they do not fulfill us?

A Better Answer

The answer provided by Christian philosophers is very different from the inadequate response most people give. Their answer is that this despair is a signpost, suggesting the existence of another world where genuine satisfaction awaits us. To see why, consider the steps in their argument.

First of all, they point to the fact that “innate desires” always correspond to real things that can satisfy these desires. An innate desire is a desire that is part of human nature. That means that it is something that all human beings feel, a desire they are born with. (This is an important distinction. After all, a young boy might have the desire to fly like a superhero. Such a desire is a genuine desire but it is not an innate desire because it is not part of human nature per se. Many people have no desire whatsoever to fly like a superhero.) Philosophers have observed that creatures are not born with a desire unless something exists that can satisfy this desire. For instance,

  • A baby feels thirsty; there is such a thing as milk.
  • A duckling wants to swim; there is such a thing as water.
  • A dog feels hunger; there is such a thing as food.
  • People have curiosity; there is such a thing as knowledge.
  • People feel lonely; there is such a thing as friendship.
  • Men and women both desire sex; there is such a thing as sex.

Thus, where there is a desire that is intrinsic to our nature, there is also something that exists to satisfy it. Indeed, no exceptions to this rule have ever been found. No counterexample exists. In 1867 the American philosopher Asa Mahan confidently declared, “It is, as we have seen, a universal and immutable law of nature, as far as facts are or can be known to man, that for every fundamental want of sentient existence there is a corresponding provision.”3 Notice the strong language he uses. It is a universal and immutable law of nature.

Another World Awaits Us

If Mahan is correct (and I think he is) then what does that mean for this desire we have that can never be fulfilled? It means that something must exist that can satisfy it. This dissatisfaction, this desire that never seems to get fulfilled by anything in this world, is an indicator that there is another world that we are meant to be part of. Something somewhere must exist to fulfill this desire.

Life Is Unsatisfying A Reason to BelieveMahan says this something is God, citing the need that all human tribes have to worship something.4 C.S. Lewis connects it more vaguely to the realm of the supernatural: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”5

Mahan and Lewis are both correct. Our dissatisfaction is a powerful indicator that something beyond this physical realm exists. It indicates that there is another world—a supernatural realm—that we were made for.

An eagle that was raised among chickens would feel an insatiable urge to soar high in the sky. By the same token, there is something within us that wants to live on a completely higher plane. This physical world is not all that there is. We were made to soar.

1. I am indebted to the writings and lectures of Peter Kreeft for many of the examples used in this article, along with the quotes from Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, St. Augustine, and C.S. Lewis.
2. Deion Sanders, Power, Money, & Sex: How Success Almost Ruined My Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 101.
3. Asa Mahan, The Science of Natural Theology (Boston: Henry Hoyt 1867), 192.
4. Mahan’s own words: “No sentient existence, for example, has a fundamental want, to which there is not a corresponding provision. Now, there is no principle more absolutely universal and fundamental, in the human mind, than that of religion. Religion is as natural to man as food, or breath, – so natural, that he will worship ‘beasts and birds, and creeping things,’ rather than have no religion at all. What is the all overshadowing reality to which this department of our nature, in all its entireness, vibrates, as its fixed and changeless centre? It is the idea of a personal God. Without this idea, and in the absence of an unshaken conviction of its absolute validity, the mainspring of the mind is broken; its great central balance-wheel is gone.” Asa Mahan, The Science of Natural Theology (Boston: Henry Hoyt 1867), 217.
5. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952) 136-137.

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