“The aim of Jewish piety lies not in futile efforts toward the satisfaction of needs in which one chances to indulge and which cannot otherwise be fulfilled, but in the maintenance and fanning of the discontent with our aspirations and achievements, in the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction.”
~Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man is Not Alone)
Religion is a strange thing. It has a tendency to take our common and accepted values and subvert them. It challenges our collective assumptions and finds our usual aspirations and desires wanting. Often, because of this tendency, people judge religion to be repressive and restrictive, a means of exercising oppressive control over the hearts and minds of its adherents, and desiring to do so over non-adherents. And it is true that there are elements within the religious world whose mode of expression is repression and condemnation. There are those who interpret the subversion of social norms in terms of a war against the prevailing culture.
At first glance, the quote above from Abraham Joshua Heschel might seem to belong to this category. Is it really true that all our efforts toward the satisfaction of our needs are futile? Is Heschel right when he states that we are able indulge our needs, but that ultimately they cannot be fulfilled? Is there anything inherently wrong in seeking the satisfactions of such things as position, wealth, sex or fame? Where do these things fit in the economy of the spirit?
A closer reading, however, finds that there is no condemnation of the “satisfaction of needs,” no denouncing of our “aspirations and achievements.” Heschel is not issuing a moral injunction against the pursuit of desire, he is suggesting that there is a deeper and greater value in discontent, in dissatisfaction, and in longing. It is not that seeking satisfaction is wrong, it’s just that it’s fleeting. He is reminding us that satisfaction as a goal in itself, as an end, is ephemeral and “futile.” This knowledge still exists in our common speech in phrases like, “Money can’t buy happiness,” “Fame is a vapor,” “All good things must come to an end,” and “Success is journey not a destination.” The Rolling Stones apparently knew this truth when they sang “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Who knew that song contained such spiritual truth?
It is no secret that our contemporary culture is geared toward the gratification of desire. Our whole economy is based on it. We are consumers who are constantly encouraged by advertisers and marketers to try new and different means to satisfy cravings we may not even know we have. There are so many things to do and to try and to buy that, to a large extent, we have lost the ability to just be. The ability to satisfy almost any need, almost instantaneously can seem like a great thing. However, there is evidence that one of the most important qualities we can develop as human beings is the ability to delay gratification and it seems likely that our prevailing situation has, to a large extent, eroded that ability for many of us.
The religious view, as articulated by Heschel, goes even further than this. He advocates, not just delayed gratification, but “the maintenance and fanning of discontent…, of a craving that knows no satisfaction.” I don’t believe that what is being promoted here is any kind of unhappiness or misery, as if the way to God was through some kind of suffering asceticism or mortification of the human will.
I think the relevant analogy here is the state of being in love. When we fall in love we are filled with a longing for the other. It can at times be painful, but it is a sweet pain and we would never wish it away. Even when we are with the one we love, we feel we can’t be close enough to our beloved or know enough about him or her. Joy and pain somehow intermingle, and our longing for the other can never quite be satisfied even when our beloved is near.
The religious masters of this experience are the Sufis. The Sufi shaykh Jami teaches that “The heart that is free of love-sickness isn’t a heart at all. The body deprived of the pangs of love is nothing but clay and water.” The poet, Rumi, puts it like this:the longing you express
is the return message.
the grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.
A slightly more sober version of this idea might be image of the empty vessel of Taoism. A bowl that is full, like a desire that is satisfied, has lost its dynamic power. Nothing else can happen. But it is in its emptiness that the vessel is useful. It has the power to receive. And maybe that is the secret of the unsatisfied yearning. Though we are filled with longing, we are emptied of self, ready to receive something of the Divine.
I believe that we are changed by love. Our meeting is like that of the ocean and the shore. We come together for a time, sometimes with passionate intensity, sometimes soft and gentle. And just as the shore takes on a new shape when the tide recedes, some things washed away, some new object—a shell, or a lost treasure—left behind, so are we, in the ebb and flow of love, painfully and beautifully, made new. I believe that this is the kind of encounter that Heschel is inviting us to with God. To open ourselves by expanding our yearning and our need, to meet life with a transforming love, to be slowly changed into an image of the Divine.
And I believe God is a Stones fan and that he loves to sing these lines: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”