(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
I refuse to believe we are merely walking plumbing machines. For much of my life, I have been searching for something, a way of making a difference and a means of finding some purpose within the chaos. I have no idea why I am driven to seek while others seem happy with their lot. I suppose it’s simply the way we’re made.
I’ve found that whenever I have achieved some goal or other, the prize has proved to be a mirage. It’s always been the same: I travelled from school to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst; from graduating to becoming an officer in a “smart” regiment, then to becoming an MP; from relative poverty to wealth; from being single to being married; and from one strata of our class-ridden society to another. Each time, I thought that my arrival in a new and, from a distance, glittering place would bring some kind of satisfaction, but I was wrong.
The Germans have a word for this king of seeking and that is “sehnsucht”. Apparently there is no neat English equivalent; it translates as a yearning with transcendent overtones. That probably sounds pretentious but it’s not complicated. In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, he says of the mountains of Central California that he wanted “to climb into the warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.” I think that’s as good a description of my yearning I’m likely to find. Often, I remember crying out to myself whenever I arrived somewhere new: “Here it is! I’ve found it at last”, only to discover that once again my prize was slipping away through my fingers like ashes.
My self-awareness tells me that my drive in life is forged from a profound fear of being mediocre and boring. That fear has always pushed me remorselessly onwards because even when I knew I had become somebody, I still had to prove I was somebody. Each time I achieved something or other, in a short while I realised that unless I kept going, it was not enough. My sense of self, my desire for self-worth and my need to be sure I am somebody remained unsatisfied. No matter how much I threw into my cupboard, the next day I found it to be empty.
Those of a certain age will recall the iconic 1966 film Alfie starring Michael Caine. It was a dark movie, and the question asked in the theme song, “What’s it all about?”, has remained – not surprisingly – unanswered.
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen the relatively early deaths of a number of celebrities who in terms of prodigious talent and looks, and the possession of vast sums of money, had scooped the pool. Yet despite this, just reflect on some of their fates. We have Elvis sitting dead on his loo from substance-abuse; Marilyn Monroe’s tragic overdose; the lonely death of alcoholic Tony Hancock in an Australian hotel room; the untimely death of Richard Burton, who apparently spent a good deal of his career trying to drown his vast talents in vodka; the suicide of star singer Kurt Kubain, father to a young baby, who said “I’m a stain, I hate myself, I want to die”; and the death of singer Amy Winehouse from alcohol intoxication. Recently, Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose, a needle sticking out of his arm, Mick Jagger’s fashion designer girlfriend, L’Wren Scott, hanged herself, and 25-year-old Peaches Geldolf – mother to two small boys – was found dead after taking drugs.
Common sense tells us that what we had read previously of these celebrities’ manicured lives was PR flannel, but we didn’t know that hiding behind the candelabra was chaos and despair.
Tim Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, writes of a local downtown cafe that employs aspiring film actors as waiters while they wait to secure their call to fame. Very occasionally, one or two of them make it big and grow rich and famous. “And then,” he tells us, “their wrath is terrible.”
So what’s going on here? Did they find that instead of “arriving” with a passport to happiness, the devil had instead pulled the ultimate con trick and that it was all a mirage? Did they discover that when they had reached the summit of their ambition, they were even more lonely and fearful than they were before they started the ascent?
Soren Kierkegaard wrote that ever since men crawled out of the slime, they have conducted an endless experiment to prove that money, sex and power will bring happiness in their wake. Yet, he opined, there has never been a single case in which this experiment is known to have succeeded: “In any other scientific field such a failed experiment would long since have been abandoned, yet men [and women] are still ploughing on trying to make this hopeless experiment work.”
What’s It All About?
It seems that when the feet of the golden idols of our culture finally decay, Alfie’s question will remain playing on a loop. What’s it all about then, this toil, worry and striving, for what exactly? Does anything in this world satisfy us?
Heck… Hoffman had great talent, money and success, a wife and three children, a crowd of friends and a universe of fans who thought he was brilliant, yet he still felt compelled to ring the local scumbag to supply him with a bag of heroin so he could escape to la-la land. If he wasn’t happy and fulfilled, then what hope have the rest of us who may be striving to get just a little bit of what Hoffman had? How many of us are trying to prove today that making money and winning admiration are the same things as peace of mind and contentment?
For many years I thought Hilaire Belloc was spot on when he wrote: “There’s nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends”, but even this satisfaction can only go so far, a pointer towards the goal and not the goal itself.
So, where can we go from here? G.A. Studdert Kennedy, MC, the famous World-War-One poet and priest known as Woodbine Willie who comforted dying soldiers, wrote, “You cannot be sane unless you are crazy about Christ. You are then mad upon the highest cause of sanity.”
Only a few years ago, I would have thought that was pure drivel. Today, to my utter astonishment, I find I agree.
This is a very fine piece of writing. Thank you for providing both inspiration and reassurance.