The ugly little secret of life, one I hesitate to share with students, is how disappointing all of it is. Indeed, if the reader is under 30, I’m tempted to tell him to click on some other column — lest I drain from him the sparks of life and energy that are meant to keep him racing forward like a hound, jumping over the hedges and through the flaming hoops, in fervent pursuit of a tasty rabbit that’s always just out of reach . . . Why tell the unhappy truth: that if he finally catches the thing, it will turn out to be mechanical, an inedible motorized toy.
This truth of life emerges with fullest force in the fleshly appetites, but it isn’t, alas, restricted to them. How easily we move from fervent hunger to bloated fullness, and end up regretting or even resenting the meal that gleamed so irresistible on the menu. How quickly the flame of eros consumes its material, and the flesh that once obsessed or even possessed us turns into a burdensome, nattering mannequin with an irritating accent. The torrent of even righteous anger congeals into a slimy, stagnant pool once we’ve thrown the punch and felled our enemy. The objects we have scrimped (or recklessly borrowed) to buy quickly lose that “new car” smell and transubstantiate into white elephants, or else into dull necessities we simply take for granted. Those rare and hard-won vacations from work: Why do they dissolve in dull expanses of sloth and finally boredom, till at length we cannot wait to crawl back down into the mines? The genuine achievements for which we accept the proper credit . . . how long before the gold plate on our Oscar begins to tarnish, and we pick the thing up to shake it, wondering why it is hollow?
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve just run through six of the Seven Deadly Sins — omitting only Envy, since it alone of all the seven has no legitimate outlet: It’s evil from top to toe. But each of the others corrupts a real satisfaction we are meant in some sense to pursue. It’s in our programming, and since the Fall, we are programmed, it seems, to fail. By this I don’t mean “to sin.” Even when they are pursued in the proper way, along the Golden Mean between the deadly sin and its opposite neurosis, we will never quite find what we’re seeking, and we’ll always feel just a twinge of disappointment. I know the standard apologetical answer at this point: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Augustine, Confessions). And that is certainly true. But what about when we feel ourselves disappointed with God?
Not that we’re resting in Him, so it isn’t quite God we really weigh and find wanting. No one’s suggesting the saints in glory are kicking tires on the Trinity, undergoing buyer’s remorse.
But our earthly relationship to God is subject to the same grim alteration of hunger and disappointment as any other experience. If you view God’s people, the Jews, as the archetype of humanity, their sacred history shows those dreary ups and downs. No sooner would they achieve — after earth-shattering miracles, scattered manna, and vanquished pharaohs — some measure of peace and plenty than they would start to get a little jaded. Those tedious dietary laws and elaborate sin sacrifices began to seem kind of silly, like a third-century B.C. version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Why exactly was it so important to shun the reverent fertility cults of every people around them? Compared to those glittering, sexy idols and their sacred prostitutes, how dry and abstract was this invisible God, how shrill were all His prophets . . .
We Christians aren’t off the hook. If there’s one thing Our Lord did all through His public life, it was to disappoint and confuse the people who followed Him. I’m sure it began at the Wedding of Cana, when the last cask of Château Miraculeux ran dry and the now-blotto wedding crashers started schnorring Mary for more. But Christ, like a wise and responsible bartender, cut them off and took their car keys. They probably stumbled out of there cursing His name.
Things only got worse after that. Christ would no sooner perform a miraculous cure and gather a friendly crowd than He’d slip off into the desert by Himself. It must have seemed autistic. How frustrating for the burgeoning activists among the apostles — who’d probably started counting heads and comparing their total to John the Baptist’s. The rich young man who’d strutted up to Jesus to explain his rectitude was slapped in the face with the call to a vow of poverty. The Pharisees (like good traditionalists) had expected this fiery rabbi to stand with them against the sell-out liberal Sadducees. They scoffed instead to find He was eating with penitent tramps and Roman collaborators.
Of course, the real bait-and-switch kicked in when we realized what Christ was up to — that He was overturning all the Messianic promises that had kept the Jews going for centuries. There would be no earthly kingdom of peace and plenty, from which the Jews would radiate order and justice to a grateful gentile world. Indeed, there would be no peace, but the treachery in the Garden and the horror of the Cross. Only on the other side of death would come Resurrection, and only after an unpredictable stretch of persecution and chaos would come the New Jerusalem, which couldn’t rise until the first one had been leveled, stone torn from stone.
But we don’t want some heavenly city on the other side of death. We are still those faded, smudgy Xerox copies of Adam whose hearts pine after restful times spent under Eden’s trees heavy with fruit. We use our bulky brains to figure out back doors and forgotten tunnels back into the Garden, or technological means to disable the flaming sword. We prefer the disappointments to which we’re resigned to the terrifying transformation that is demanded, and when He gently explains to us that simple innocence no longer is an option, we look deep in His eyes — and like the rich young man, we go away sad.