The Gift of Dissatisfaction


I’ve been in Los Angeles a year now, and I have noticed two things about this year, especially the last 6 months:

  1. Life is really good in just about every measurable way
  2. I am more dissatisfied and more consistently dissatisfied with life than I have been for years

This contrast puzzled me at first, so I focused on those few areas of life where I could see notable shortfalls – things like my self control, my sense of disconnectedness from God, and why I’m still single…

This focus on what is “missing” only reaffirmed what I have known for a while: I could change any of these — even all of them — and I wouldn’t necessarily be happy.  For one, there’d always be more, bigger, and better to strive for.  The more and bigger things attract me some, but greater experiences definitely have the greater draw — and there’s no end to that train.  In addition to that, I am already failing to fully enjoy the good in my life in the present, so increasing that good isn’t necessarily increasing my enjoyment of it.

At the root is a fundamental dissatisfaction that has been one of the greatest barriers between me and happiness.  This dissatisfaction is also one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.

The fact that there’s more, that I thirst for more, and I have hope for more — more meaningful, more interesting, more profound, more true — this fact keeps pushing me to do, to try, to explore.  Not always, not perfectly, but repeatedly.  In fact, having the drive that comes from this dissatisfaction has led me to be much more satisfied with my life as a whole!

As a result of a vague dissatisfaction with the present — the present world and my present circumstances and my present self — I have thirsted for and pursued more out of life, repeatedly learning to set aside fear and “be careful how [I] walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of [my] time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16)

And as a result I have experienced deep friendships and incredible adventures, having more than my fair share of good stories.  This dissatisfaction is at least partially responsible for the fact that I’m about to do two back-to-back adventure trips, starting today!

Simultaneous packing yesterday for back-to-back trips: first backpacking in the high Sierras, then international travel

But at what cost have I received this gift?  Drive and motivation may be one consequence of dissatisfaction, but unhappiness is another.  I am not excited about most days, and often struggle to appreciate the good that is in the present.  I am more deeply satisfied with my life as a whole, with the paths God has led me on, but I am less happy in the day-to-day walk.  This is quite the cost!

Is it possible to do both, to be happy in the present and also pursuing greater things and pressing into a greater future?

I think so, but I’m not there yet.  As a model of this, I bring up Paul of Tarsus, who 2,000 years ago lived with passion and purpose that resonates to this day. Whatever you may think of Christianity or Paul’s cause, his overwhelming sense of purpose and his unrelenting pursuit of it are clear.  In his words: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

This same man also said “I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be content.” (Philippians 4:11)  I logically grasp that contentment and drive are not mutually exclusive, but I so rarely see them both happening simultaneously.  Paul goes a step further even, telling us the secret to this kind of contentment is found in following Jesus Christ.

But I am still looking for how to practically live that out.  One day I may get it, but today I will be thankful and smile a little to myself when I feel that vague sense of dissatisfaction: it is just God calling me to see more, explore more, to love more.

One thought on “The Gift of Dissatisfaction

  1. I’ve had another thought about this since our discussion. Growing up, my family never did big travel trips or fancy vacations. We spent one week crossing Lake Michigan by ferry and enjoying a quiet cabin in the woods on a tiny lake where no motor boats were allowed. We read books, swam, and sang around the campfire. This was enough for me. My parents once suggested we forgo the cabin trip one year to take an American road trip instead, but none of us kids wanted to give up our simple tradition.
    I was the type of girl who thought the farthest from home she would move would be the neighboring state. I had no desire to live far from family, I was content.

    Then I moved to Florida for school. At first, I still wanted to return home for the summer rather than do internships across the country. However, junior year I did the NASA Academy, which took us all over the place. I started getting a taste for travel. Then I moved to Los Angeles, and grad school meant traveling across country and even abroad for conferences. Suddenly, I found my taste for travel and exploration insatiable.

    A simple trip to a quiet lake would no longer satisfy. I find that the more exotic places I go, the more I need to “up the ante”…simply visiting the mountains isn’t as jaw-dropping anymore, I need to summit the 14ers, view the sharp peaks of the Alps, etc.

    It makes me consider that wanderlust and traveling is somewhat like a drug…You get some of it and you have that thrill, but to have the thrill again you need to visit a new place, see more exotic sites, capture more beauty…

    As such, I wonder if it is part of human nature, in order to help our species survive. Prior to agriculture, humans were largely nomadic. We moved from place to place, seeking greener pastures always. I wonder if there is a latent desire that is triggered by our wanderings, to always be seeking more. I think C. S. Lewis put it in terms of our spirit always seeking something better, as it was made for heaven and not this broken world.

    These thoughts don’t really provide a solution to balancing dissatisfaction with contentment, but I wanted to share anyways. : P


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