The other day a friend of 20 years announced that she was giving up a lucrative and stable career to move to Los Angeles to pursue what has always been a big part of her life and a clear passion, acting. She is nearly 40 years old, has limited contacts in the field and has never lived in LA. The odds seem to be against her, but she’s going for it anyway. That made me start thinking about my own life, the changes I’ve made which, upon reflection, really aren’t so different from hers. While a big move didn’t figure into the equation, my leap of faith was just as great and it also brought to mind a turn of phrase that for some reason has been popping up in my life lately: divine dissatisfaction.
What is divine dissatisfaction?
At first blush it seems incongruous, a strange commingling of words but the more digging one does, the more one realizes just how powerful the two words ‘divine dissatisfaction’ can be. The phrase has been used a number of times in our history: by Martin Luther King, Jr. to describe the inalienable right to find injustice in segregation and discrimination, by political commentators to describe the American electorate, but my favorite is from an unlikely source of inspiration, at least for me – the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. She once wrote that:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
I love that and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, and it was this quote that forced me to think about how we all have our own moments of divine dissatisfaction and how for many, these moments turn into something more powerful and transformative than they ever realized. Born in the 70s and raised in the 80s, I’m a true Gen-Xer and my parents equally well represented their own Baby Boomer generation. That meant that their values, values handed down to them by the Greatest Generation who suffered war and economic depression, were naturally transferred down the line to me. Such is case for a great many of us, and while I know they all meant well, not all of those values are applicable today and, in many instances, do us more harm than good.
The concept of divine dissatisfaction in one’s personal life would be a foreign abstraction to the Greatest Generation. Life was about stability, productivity and providing the best for one’s family. That’s it. A job was a job and enjoyment usually played little role in one’s occupation; getting a paycheck and enough to live on in retirement was all that mattered. And there’s of course a lot to be said for that, and many seek the same today, but what started in my generation, a certain feeling that there’s more to life, has taken up full root in the Millennial generation to the point where it’s almost a pleasurable epidemic. I like to think of it as an American way of seeing life, that anything is possible and none of us have to be content with our lot in life, unless we want to be. More than a century ago it was lauded in the works of Horatio Alger, who championed individuals who picked themselves up from nothing. For a while we seem to have forgotten the importance of being the outlier, of having a certain divine dissatisfaction with our own lives. I think we felt that it was too selfish to want to be happy; at least I did. The mantra that we should be happy with what we have and not complain was drilled into me from an early age. But sometimes in life just getting by isn’t enough, sometimes it’s important to embrace that divine dissatisfaction and BE selfish, do things that make you happy because the effect on loved ones and even the world may be incredible. Some of our greatest thinkers and innovators have all embraced this sense of divine dissatisfaction, to not be happy with the status quo and it’s time to make that feeling a more egalitarian one, a series of actions that any of us can take and not just the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates of the world. Fear of course is what holds many back but thankfully that’s changing. Many have realized that fear isn’t just annoying, it’s debilitating and that passion, true passion, should be the goal of anyone’s life.
The danger of fear
Fear is a complex thing to dissect, although I’ve tried in the past to analyze it and bring it out into the full light of day. I’ve often written about the somewhat campy, but excellent, movie “Defending Your Life,” in which characters in the afterlife have to answer for their fears and consider how this emotion shaped almost every action while they were living. Those with little fear “moved on” while those too fearful, too unwilling to take chances were “sent back.” It’s a light-hearted romantic comedy, but it’s a film that has resonated with me throughout my life and I think the lessons are important ones to take to heart.
Fear has become such an ingrained part of our daily lives that most of us don’t even think of it as fear anymore. Unwillingness to stand up for your convictions, to correct people when they’re wrong, to ask for that raise, to tell your spouse they’re wrong, to criticize someone on social media – these are all decisions we make based on fear. Fear of being wrong, fear of upsetting someone, fear of getting fired, fear, fear, fear. While some fear in life is good, not getting eaten by a bear has greatly improved the quality of my life, other types of fear are debilitating and downright lethal.
This is where divine dissatisfaction comes back into the show. More and more often I see people becoming frustrated with their own lives. Either they’re in a relationship they don’t like or a job they hate. And I also get emails from many of these people, asking how they can pursue their own dreams, their own goals, their own passions. The answer is usually a frustratingly simple one – just do it. Just take that leap of faith, do that one thing you want to do most, but most can’t. Most are too afraid of the repercussions, and do not allow themselves to fully buy into the power of divine dissatisfaction. That’s where passion enters the scene.
The importance of passion
Passion is everything, but it can also take any form. I define it as doing that which makes you most happy. For me, it’s all things travel related. Ever since I could hold a book I’ve been fascinated with anything foreign and built my life around experiencing as much of the world as I could. I took the ultimate leap three years ago when I left a stable, non-travel job to pursue travel blogging full time. That was my passion and it was crucial for my own physical and emotional well being that I defined it and then pursued it. But my passion is just that, my passion. For others it may be cooking, medicine or even being an accountant. It’s not for us to judge what makes others happy, merely to encourage them to seek it out and make it a big part of their lives. Passion also doesn’t have to be all consuming or destructive. Following your dreams and passions does not have to mean strapping on a backpack and leaving family and loved ones behind. Quite the contrary, I think that’s destructive for many people. Instead, the changes aren’t radical but they are deliberative. They can be simple actions, from a move to a new city or acknowledging that your current job isn’t stimulating enough. Whatever it is, it’s vital that people identify it, conquer the fear that comes with making changes and then implement those changes. They need to accept that it’s ok to be dissatisfied sometimes, that it can be a positive thing and is what will ultimately drive us to succeed in life, whether it’s on a personal or professional level.
Embracing your own moments of divine dissatisfaction
Recent surveys show that up to three-quarters of American workers are not happy with their jobs. I hate that number, but I can also understand that number. I was there, I get it. I was in a profession I hated for 12 years and it finally took fate intervening before I realized how much I hated it. But I’m an extreme example; not everyone can leave a good paying job and take the risk of making little or no money for up to a year or longer. A better example is another friend of mine. He too found himself in a job that while he enjoyed it, the job was taking a tremendous physical and mental toll on him. It was just too much and he worried that his body couldn’t keep up with the constant demands. What he did was to find another job in the same profession, which he really enjoys, but one that has better and more manageable hours and expectations. He left a job that afforded ZERO work/life balance and replaced it with one that allows him time to relax and enjoy life. He sacrificed a little to do this, but it was an important change. He’s following his passions, but not losing sight of what’s really important in life. This perspective is key. You have to be able to look at yourself objectively and tweak your situation in ways that allows you to be happy, productive and passionate about life. It’s not easy, and not everyone will take the time to do it, but it’s vital if you want to lead a happier, healthier life.
The first step is to acknowledge the validity of being unhappy with an aspect of our lives. That divine dissatisfaction is divine because it gives us our edge and, if listened to, will propel us on to bigger and better things. But you have to listen to it. Finding and living your passion isn’t easy, but it’s also not the extreme leap many may think it is. It doesn’t mean you have to sell your house and travel the world. Living a happier life may mean slight changes in your current life that make you more content. Regardless of what needs to be done, it’s important to take that first step and make it a reality. Life is brutally short, a fact that has been demonstrated to me in hard lessons recently and I know how important it is not to squander our time on this planet. Be selfish, find a way to start living a purposeful life and in the process I bet you’ll also improve the lives of those nearest and dearest to you as well.
5 thoughts on “Fear, Passion and the Importance of Divine Dissatisfaction”
Excellent post, Matt! And congrats on taking the leap to follow your passion. I’ve always believed in allowing dissatisfaction to lead towards a better way of life. I’ve never been able to explain it so eloquently as you have when my friends ask me what I mean. I will be sharing this post in future. Oh, and I’m going to watch Defending Your Life. Thanks for this post!
Real food for thought man.. and I will have to read it again! But I totally agree that life is too short and living a purposeful life is key.. so is finding out what that purpose and your true calling is!!
Inspiring post, Matt!
Thanks for this post & your wonderful blog!
Outstanding blog. I am absolutely in love with this piece, fantastic job! All ideas are genuine and evoke the most human aspects in all of us, that being compassion, love, imagination and courage. In my opinion, we are all made of star-dust. Time on this planet is very short which should influence us to make the most of the time that we have here. The time given to us, is the time to share ideas and passions with one another to unite the community and bring about a wonderful sense of artistry. People squander the word ‘artist’ so often, society has developed a false sense of what an artist actually is. Those who suffer from divine dissatisfaction with their work, and those who implement their passions into a craft. These are some of inspirations I think the world currently needs. I agree with this completely, so heart-warming to read this! Thanks so much!
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