Blessed Dissatisfaction

“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Ps. 42:2)

“Can’t get no satisfaction” — The Rolling Stones

The driving guitar rift and raspy-voiced lyrics of this Rolling Stones classic gives a kind of pop-articulation to the disaffection of the lonely and alienated urbanite who, try as he might, just cannot succeed at satisfying the material and romantic/sexual goals droned into his mind on the radio and TV. Nevertheless, this song—regardless of its actual intentions—managed to say something enduring about the “human condition.” (Personally, I am inclined to believe that the members of the Rolling Stones never did derive a great amount of “satisfaction” from their enormous fame and fortune. Money and media exposure may, after all, just not be the solution.) Be that as it may, a rather odd connection came to me between this song and a verse from “The Akathist of Thanksgiving” that we chanted in our parish during the ecclesial observance of Thanksgiving Day. In Ikos Six of the akathist, one of the verses in the refrain reads as follows:

Glory to You, Who have inspired in us dissatisfaction with earthly things.

Both the Stones song and the Orthodox hymn speak of “no satisfaction” or “dissatisfaction.” However, by “earthly things,” Fr Gregory Petrov, the author of this remarkable hymn, does not mean the natural world in which God has placed us. The refrain of Ikos Three makes that abundantly clear:

Glory to You, Who brought out of the
earth’s darkness diversity of color, taste and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and
caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with
thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your
wisdom reflected in the whole world…

To the purified eyes of faith, the world around us can be a “festival of life… foreshadowing eternal life” (Ikos Two). The “earthly” can lead us to the “heavenly.”

“Earthly things” in the context of the Akathist Hymn and the Orthodox worldview expressed in it, would certainly refer to the very things the Rolling Stones song laments as being absent: material and sexual satisfaction seen as ends in themselves. But whereas the song expresses both frustration and resentment as part of the psychic pain caused by such deprivation, the Akathist Hymn glorifies God for such a blessing! In the light of the insight of the Akathist Hymn, we can thus speak of a “blessed dissatisfaction.” The Apostle Paul spoke of a closely-related “godly grief.” (The Rolling Stones and the Orthodox Church nevertheless part company at this point…)

This may prove to be quite a challenge to our way of approaching “dissatisfaction.” Our usual instinct is to flee from dissatisfaction as from the plague. Such a condition implies unhappiness, together with a sense of deprivation and failure, the feeling that we are losing in the harsh game of life. Why should we tolerate the condition of dissatisfaction when limitless means of achieving “satisfaction” are at our disposal? To escape from a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction, don’t people resort to alcohol, drugs and sex as desperate forms of relief? Or unrestrained and massive consumer spending? And we should not exclude “religion” as one of those means of escape. If those means fail, therapy and medication offer more aggressive ways to relieve us of this unendurable feeling.

Sadly, many people learn the hard way that every ill-conceived attempt to eliminate dissatisfaction through “earthly things” leads only to a further and deeper level of this intolerable affliction. Sadder still, there are many who would “forfeit their soul/life” just to avoid the bitter taste of dissatisfaction! Especially when “blessed dissatisfaction” can lead us elsewhere. In a passage from his Diary of a Russian Priest, Fr Alexander Elchaninovd escribes very eloquently the point of transition from dissatisfaction to satisfaction.

What is this continual sense of dissatisfaction, of anxiety, which we normally feel within us, save the stifled voice of conscience speaking to us inwardly on the subconscious level, and often contradicting our own will and declaring the untruth that our life is? As long as we live in conflict with the law of light which has been granted us, this voice will not be silent, for it is the voice of God Himself in our soul. On the other hand, that rare feeling of keen satisfaction, of plenitude and joy, is the happiness caused by the union of the divine principle in our soul with the universal harmony and the divine essence of the world.
(St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY (2001), p. 26.)

If the living God exists, as we believe He does, then how could we not feel dissatisfaction at His absence from our lives? What could possibly fill the enormous space in the depth of our hearts that yearns for God “as a hart longs for flowing streams.” (Ps. 42:1) It is as if when people hear the voice of God calling them—in their heart, their conscience, through another person, or through a personal tragedy—they turn up the volume so as to drown out that call. If we were made for God, then each person has an “instinct for the transcendent” (I recall this expression from Fr Alexander Schmemann) that can only be suppressed at an incalculable cost to our very humanity. In His infinite mercy, the Lord blesses us with a feeling of dissatisfaction so that we do not foolishly lose our souls in the infinitesimal pseudo-satisfactions that come our way. Therefore, we thank God for the gift of “blessed dissatisfaction!”

When we realize that we “can’t get no satisfaction,” then we have approached the threshold of making a meaningful decision about the direction of our life. The way “down” can lead to the kind of benign despair that characterizes the lives of many today. The way “up,” on the other hand, leads to the One Who is “enthroned above the heavens,” the only Source of true satisfaction. The Rolling Stones uncovered the truth of an enduring condition that we all must face and deal with. I am not so sure about the solution they would ultimately offer… but in their initial intuition they proved to be very “Orthodox!”

V. Rev. Steven Kostoff is Pastor of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, Norwood, Ohio.