Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Existential Perils of the Grocery Store



I love dreaming about the places I can visit in the future, the food I would like to try, and the experiences I would like to have. I write up long and extensive "must see" and "must do" lists, after hours pouring over travel guides, picture books and websites extolling the praises of certain cities, foods, and experiences. Most of the time I find this a fun activity, but lately, it has become a source of some serious existential frustration. When I look at my finished list, I realize that I'll never even get to experience a fraction of it. What use is it to greatly desire something and know that it will probably be perpetually out of reach? 

At 30, I have experienced more of everything life has to offer than nearly all who have come before me. I have never known true hunger or the true lack of shelter and protection. I have had the pleasure of eating what I want, when I want, in the amounts I want. My possible choices of food are wider than at any time in all of history. I have access to greater amounts and types of food and drink than Kings did less than 100 years ago. A trip to a modern grocery store offers a larger variety of fresh and international food that anyone would have considered an utopian dream just 100 years ago. I recently walked down a freezer section that had nearly 100ft of ice cream choices alone! Hundreds of choices and I can't possible try them all! I find myself wanting more. I find my experiences still lacking something. When will I say I've had as much as I deserve and should stop seeking out more?

This can be said for so many areas of my life. I've seen more movies than most will in their lifetime. I have an extensive music library and I have access to volumes of music throughout history at my fingertips. I have read more books, talked with more experts, and seen more television programs than nearly all my ancestors.  I have traveled to more world locations than most, and I have watched or viewed thousands of movies and pictures that give me a taste of places I will never go to. Yet, I continue to thirst for more.

My 'must go' and 'must do' lists end up being so extensive that I am struck by the reality that I will never get the chance to experience the majority of them, let alone all of them. I could take matters into my own hands and attempt to fulfill these lists, but that would require a conscious and proactive effort where valuable trade-offs are inevitable. At the end of it all, will I finish how I feel now, wanting more?

Making these lists I am amazed at how many experiences of beauty, awe, and pleasure are possible in this world, and available to a middle-class guy like me. This is then equally-matched by the frustrating realization that it's impossible to experience it all. Why would God create a world where only a minimal amount of it and its beauty can be experienced? Why do I feel entitlement to experiencing it all? Is it more entitlement or innate desire for pleasure? Do others feel the same way as I do? Why do I still feel like at the end of it all, even if I could experience it all, I would still be left wanting and unsatisfied? Why can I acknowledge this truth, yet it doesn't alter or change my desires?

Three further realizations when contemplating these questions:

1) Godly Existential Humility: The only way out of complete frustration and despair is through a godly existential humility. Without a realistic understanding of who my creator is, and what I was created for, I think there is call for true despair in the face of our own limited realities. Past generations could not take the full scope of beauty and pleasure available to man because of inherent limitations on their knowledge of the world and availability of free time. These constraints have all but been thrown off in our generation, we can glimpse thousands of available (yet also out of our reach) world experiences in just the click of a mouse button. I must constantly remind myself that I wasn't created as an autonomous, entitled, pleasure-consuming human being, who deserves to accumulate and please himself as seen fit. I was created by God to be in communion with Him, to bring glory to Him, and find fulfillment in Him.

2) Godly Contentment & Passion: The context of a godly existential humility is wide enough to encompass a passive dependence upon God's gracious gifts (take what comes) as well as a pro-active seeking out of our own good passions and desires (seeking out what we enjoy). True humility will be content with the existential choices available and will see them with gratitude as the grace of God. Yet, true humility will also understand that God's creation was given to us to enjoy, and He has designed us to enjoy it (and by proxy, enjoy him through it). This passiveness and pro-activeness taken alone can be abused and misunderstood, but a true contentment and humility towards God will include a healthy measure of both.

3) New Heaven and Earth: My inability to be satisfied, even if I experienced everything I wanted to on this earth seems to be an indicator of the validity of Christianity's claim of a fallen world and a fallen human nature. It pushed me to look beyond this present world and take great hope in the Christian promise of a new heavens and a new earth where the terms "unfulfilled", "wanting", and "unsatisfied" will not apply.


"I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

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