Is There a Right to "Feel" Fulfilled?

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2007
Reproduced with Permission

I recall a former student who one day informed me that she only averages a couple of hours of sleep a night - some nights she gets no sleep at all. To my surprise, her consistent lack of sleep was a free decision, and the reason she gave for this self-imposed sleep deprivation was that she wanted to "experience" all that life has to offer. My suggestion that her lifestyle choice was a form of gluttony was not appreciated, to say the least. Nonetheless, her gluttony for exhilarating experiences will not only hurt her in the long run, it is bound to affect everyone who will be more or less intimately involved in her life.

The causes of human suffering are varied, but one very real source of human misery is a "right" that many people today allege is theirs, namely, the right to feel fulfilled always and everywhere. So many married people have to live with the painful wound of infidelity, not to mention seniors who live with the loneliness of neglect, or children raised without the certainty that they are good and loveable, all because certain people in their lives have decided - or are under the impression - that the feeling of fulfillment is something which they are entitled to experience indefinitely, and that something in their lives is profoundly wrong when that feeling begins to wane.

That we have a right to experience fulfillment, to feel it perpetually, is one of the most difficult illusions to dispel, only because happiness has something to do with fulfillment itself. The difficulty lies in making sense out of the fact that fulfillment does not necessarily involve the feeling that one naturally expects will accompany it. It is ironic, but human fulfillment is not comparable to the empty glass that is being filled to the brim with liquid, nor the image of one being filled with the cold contents of that glass. A more accurate comparison might be the image of a glass being slowly emptied of its contents. The more it is emptied, the more fulfilled it is.

To illustrate this, consider the following points from the realm of human knowledge. You and I are only conscious of ourselves, that is, we are only aware of ourselves in knowing something outside ourselves. That is why I am not aware of myself when I am unconscious, i.e., while under a general anaesthetic or in a coma. To know something is for the mind to become that something intentionally, that is, in an immaterial way, just as the retina acquires the colour it beholds. And so I become present to myself, that is, I discover myself, only through first becoming something other than myself.

In other words, the return to self does not happen directly, but indirectly, that is, by proceeding outside the self. Moreover, in becoming something other in the act of knowing, I become more than what I am; for I become what I know intentionally, and so knowledge expands the human person. But more importantly, knowledge makes possible a greater self-expansion than it alone is capable. Allow me to explain.

In knowing another human person, I continue to be present to myself, and I know him to be of the same nature as myself. I know him to be another self. Thus, I am capable of willing for him what I quite naturally will for myself. In other words, I can love another human being, if I so choose, as another me, or as another self, and this means I can will what is best for that person not for the sake of what he or she does for me, but for his or her own sake - for that is how I love myself, namely as an end, not as a means. In fact, I can even choose to will more for another human person than I will for myself.

The point I wish to make here is that loving a person involves a self-expansion that knowledge alone does not achieve, for it involves me in a decision to exit myself in a way that knowledge alone does not demand. In knowing this person, he exists in me in a certain way. In loving another as another self, however, I go outside myself and exist as him, but without experiencing all that he experiences. Yet through that decision, I become larger, that is, I become him, and her, and whosoever else I choose to love for his or her sake.

Human happiness is a matter of human expansion, not feeling. It is a matter of existing in a certain way. The larger we become, the more fulfilled we are (being). Whether we actually feel fulfilled is another matter entirely; for what we are (being) and what we feel are not at all the same thing and need not always coincide. A person might feel very good, but actually be very sick; conversely, a person might be very healthy, but feel profoundly uncomfortable.

Life is not about feeling good; rather, it is about learning how to love. How much more is marriage about learning how to love, and not about establishing the conditions for feeling perpetually fulfilled? A newly wed couple might think they love one another, but they usually have little or no clue of the relative weakness of their love and are for the most part unaware of the trials that lie in wait to test their love and purify it of the dross therein. Feelings of unfulfillment and emptiness, however temporary they may be, are in fact the very vehicles by which a genuine conjugal love worthy of the name is tested and eventually achieved.

The paradox here is that one never achieves the feeling of fulfillment by pursuing it; for when a person pursues a feeling, he does not pursue the perfection of love for which he was made, because he is pursuing himself - for my feelings exist in me. We need only pursue the self-expansion of loving others as another self; for in this way, we ever become the persons we are meant to perpetually become, and eventually our feelings and experience of ourselves will coincide with what we have in fact become.

But the cult of experience that possesses so many people today stifles and shrinks the human person, increasing his frustration and his thirst for "the more" than must ever evade him, driving him on in the pursuit of experiences, and persuading him to discard whatever "gets old", whether that turns out to be his marriage, his commitments, his vocation, or his family.

But there is no such right to feel fulfilled; there cannot possibly be, for we cannot even speak of a right to be happy. It is more true to think and speak in terms of the right of others to be loved and my duty to learn to love them for their own sake, and not in reference to myself.