"Tomorrow we will run faster -- stretch out our arms farther ..."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
It was sometime last winter on a backcountry ski day with Andrew – one of those days with clear blue skies, chest-deep powder, and no one around but my favorite adventuring partner. In other words: perfect.
I recognized this perfection, this utter happiness, and breathed it in. Held on to its every passing moment. Not just because it was glorious, but because I knew it wouldn’t last.
“When do think was the best time in your life – when you were happiest for the longest amount of time?” I asked suddenly.
We’d just spent 30 minutes laboriously breaking a fresh skin track and now stood at the top of a ridge, looking out over a wide, white landscape of mountains, preparing for the reward of a beautiful float down through the powder.
“I mean,” I felt the need to explain, “it’s just so hard for me to feel content. Satisfied. It’s not that I’m unhappy a lot, it’s just that I always have this feeling of anxiety that there’s something more I need to do, to achieve.”
I find such beautiful locations, ones that require such effort to find, to be the perfect settings for these kinds of soul-digging conversations.
Not long after, I read this post by Nathan Bransford which struck such a chord with me that thoughts of it have been marinating in my brain since reading it seven months ago. Mr. Bransford proposes that writers, by their very nature, are strivers – those not content to simply live, but to always reach for something more. His writes what has become my favorite recent quote about writing:
“Writing is an act of getting down on your hands and knees and pushing on the ground and hoping the world spins on a slightly different axis. It’s the art of not taking life for granted and trying to make something, anything change.”
This feels so exactly, completely true.
I began to wonder about myself not just as a writer, but as a runner, too. Even after a nearly perfect race, (which is rare) the sense of satisfaction never lasts. Always, there is something new to accomplish, some new goal to occupy ones attention. And this is good because if there wasn’t, we would never get better. Never run faster, never go farther. This is what moves us forward as runners – this inner need for something more. It’s what makes us improve.
When the mind dwells on a certain topic, it finds that everything relates. So, it was not surprising that while reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl that same week, this quote jumped out at me:
“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”
And I began to wonder – is it not just writers, not just runners? Is it all of us?
I was especially intrigued by the assertion that our inability to be satisfied is a talent. Again, this is what moves us forward. Think about the great achievers of the world, whomever you see as having accomplished big things. They were people who were not content to rest on the glory of their early successes. They always strove for something more.
So perhaps dissatisfaction is a talent. Still, I have to think it’s one best tempered with an attempt at balance and an appreciation for one’s blessings.
Because Mr. Bransford’s post related the idea of striving to The Great Gatsby, and to F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, it came to mind while recently watching John Green’s video on Gatsby. If you’re familiar with the book, his is an excellent, and concise, interpretation that is fun to watch.
As I followed the links on the serpentine path of the internet chain, I eventually watched the American Masters episode on Fitzgerald, “Winter Dreams.” It was fascinating! I learned what Mr. Bransford had already asserted – that Fitzgerald himself was a striver, like the characters of his stories, someone always reaching for more. And in spite of all this striving, Fitzgerald felt that the golden moment – what we think we want – can never live up to our dreams. The important thing is the dreaming.
“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” –This Side of Paradise
To some extent I think the “becoming” holds more appeal than the “being” because real life is much more challenging than our dreams. It’s messier, sometimes uglier, and often more mundane.
In spite of all of this, I think it’s far too easy to glorify the tortured artist, and I don’t think a person has to be unhappy in order to feel driven. I hope not anyway. Jay Gatsby himself was described as having an “extraordinary gift for hope.” Maybe that’s the flipside of dissatisfaction, the positive spin. From our discontent, hope is born.
I know happiness comes from within. I know this. It comes from living deliberately, appreciating the small moments, doing meaningful work, and developing strong relationships with other people. This is why I could stand at the top of that mountain with Andrew and live that happiness so fully, even while accepting that it may be short-lived.
I also know that this inner feeling of need, the desire for something more, to do something more, can drive a girl nuts if she lets it.
I have a recording of a live U2 concert. At one point in the show, in order to introduce the next song, Bono declares to the crowd, “I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about the fact that I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Honestly, I don’t know if I feel good about it. I do know that I have an extraordinary hope that I won’t leave this earth without having affected, just the tiniest bit, the tilt of its axis.
What do you think? Are humans by their very nature dissatisfied? Could this be a good thing?