The other day in my Shakespeare class we discussed many themes throughout The Merchant of Venice: importance of location (Belmont vs Venice), capitalism, and desires of characters. We began to talk about the characters pursuing their desires and what they saw as important in life. My professor began to try and relate this aspect of the play to us by posing the infamous question: what makes us happy? — Side Note: I am not a huge fan of the word “happy”, because I think it is weak and inconsistent when it comes to life. Also, it is vaguely defined. If you’re chasing happiness then it seems that you’ll probably just be aggravated the majority of your life, except for those few and far in between moments you experience happiness. But if you’re just living for those few fleeting moments and emotions then maybe we should rephrase the question. How about, what are we looking for in life? — However, students in my class answered the question. I felt unsettled as the professor wrote the words they spoke onto the board. Comfort. Companionship. Dogs. Money. Stable Career.
Does our happiness reside in the attainment of these things? These are the things we live for? I’m sure I’ll write about each of these objects in separate posts, but I’d like to start with “COMFORT”.
Let me set a scene. You are wandering in a desert. Nothing but endless sand all around you. Sweating profusely and slightly lightheaded as the intense sun bakes you with dry heat. You begin to stumble every few steps, hoping you will come across what you currently need. Water. Food. Help. You begin to see an unfamiliar object near the horizon in front of you. Your spirits begin to lift as there is a renewed small energy in your gait. The object becomes clearer. It is a large clear puddle. You begin to move faster as your thoughts motivate your legs. “Just a hundred more yards until I get to drink”. Now, with each step closer, the puddle begins to fade. Your mind has betrayed you as you step into the space of the puddle, only to find more dry sand. Exhausted. You sit, unable to weep. After some time, you begin to wander through the desert again. Stumbling every other step. Hoping to see something on the horizon.
Just as in this passage, I believe that comfort is attractive because it appeals to our “needs” as human beings. We thirst, we hunger, we need money, we need others… etc. We have these desires that need satisfaction, thus, a life of comfort that fills these needs is attractive. Shocker.
A life of comfort without worries about whether or not our basic needs will be met… who wouldn’t sign up for that? But, perhaps comfort should not be our aim, our end. In my own human experience, anytime I have sought after comfort, I come up empty. Just like in the passage. Comfort is a mirage in the desert, an illusion. Once we attain it, it dissipates. The comfort of a beach vacation, the comfort of a gourmet meal at a loved restaurant, the comfort of good grades in class, the comfort of a bed to sleep on… etc. Though these things are good and our basic human needs must be met, I think they are “something” and not “everything”. Comfort may come in life, but I don’t think it should be lived for or sought after as the ultimate goal.
Too many times are we like the wanderer in the desert. Wandering. Instead, we should be wondering. Wondering why the heck we are in the desert. Wondering why every time we get to the comfort we are chasing we are still unsatisfied in a deeper way. Maybe there are human needs that are even more basic or foundational. Maybe there exists deeper desires for something more, something that doesn’t just instantly satisfy or give momentary pleasure.
It could be that we shouldn’t settle for the illusions of small puddles. If we desire something more along the lines of an oasis, then that should be our aim.
I’d like to leave with words from a great British poet. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”, he says, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”