Why Our Dissatisfaction With Life Has Increased—Yet, There Is Hope

Human desire is unlimited, but our life has inevitable limits. Hence an ontological discontent can ennoble or depress us depending on the horizon in which we place it: as small as our ego, as big as the universe. The Italian journalist and philosopher Marcello Veneziani analyzes our time in such accessible but penetrating words that they moved me to share his deep observations on our dissatisfaction with life.

The premise is that we are in a time in which we are united by a discontent that now seems uncontrollable and rampant, exacerbated and exponentially amplified by the atrocious physical and spiritual distancing imposed by an unprecedented and unhealthy management of the pandemic emergency in recent years. So what is exactly this “boosted” version of discontent, this Baudelairean spleen presented in a sweetened perspective as a righteous normalizing extension of our existence?

Veneziani reveals key considerations on the matter—most of which I have translated and partly adapted through my understanding and sensitivity to facilitate its fruition to a broader readership.

The current pervasive unease of our times is the fruit of the convergence between the spiritual malaise that is within us and the historical malaise that is outside of us, in relation with the modern era. Our present era is characterized by nebulosity, decontextualization, the lack of a square and a solid reference linked to a profound meaning of our individual life and the history of humankind. It is as if we did not only give up catching—but even feeling—a sense anymore, as if we went round a traffic circle endlessly, without ever stopping and asking the other for a face-to-face conversation to the nearest bistro.

We witness frustrated—yet passive and participative—the stigmatization and annihilation by implosion of a civilization, ours, the Western one. What this kind of decline consist of? It is that sense of going around in circles in the present without a past or a future, a celebratory affranchisement from a transcendent order above us, a complete release from the constitutive dimensions of the human being and any cultural heritage. It is the West itself that rejects the civilization on which tradition, religion, culture, and any other ontological symbolism accruing to its roots stand. It does so because it feels guilty and shameful of itself, because, in order to protect and feed a palliative ideology, it relativizes any entity to an empty core that only has a shining surface, all the way through the individual who surrenders to dissatisfaction without pondering an alternative.

In that void, a power animated by malicious intentions can easily kick in and declare an invisible war against our human identity—as inheritance of cultural values and moral principles—to be able to shape the masses at will and, with them, every single individual. In these preambles, anything rooted into a brimming core becomes liquified, malleable, adulterated, relative, alienable, and, therefore, refutable by the individual—without him needing to refute. The society of consumerism, according to the theory of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his book Liquid Modernity, is based on permanent disgruntlement, that is, unhappiness. Wishes must remain unfulfilled, nobody should be satisfied with what he has and even what he is. Consequently, on a social level, relationships with our fellow human beings become more and more difficult. And diffident.

All this discomfort of living related to our social, economic, and political conditions should lead us to a healthy form of conscience-driven heterodoxy to recover the beauty of our life. So why does this discontent do not turn into revolt? Because we convince ourselves, intimately persuaded by an acquired forma mentis of objectively minor but subjectively magnified failures, that our level of unease is not so radical, a good standard of living remains, despite everything. Nobody wants to jeopardize the type of well-being he has already conquered and believes to possess beyond this earthly life.

This self-deprivation of having a horizon, an identity cradle, a breathing and pulsing purpose in which to place and recognize ourselves, a look beyond our dust seems to obscurate any possibility of hope, regardless of a hunger for dreams translating into a harbinger of life.

Our current discontent, instead, blinds us more than our dust because we look at everything through the eyes of our little ego, we do not conceive our relevance in the history of the world and circumscribe an infinite universe to our limited perimeter. Instead, if we try to imagine the universe beyond us, outside our ego, then the universe is returned to its innocence. Only then will we see how evil, death, absurdity can distract us only from the horizon, not our being.

For the poet Giacomo Leopardi, man is the only discontented living being because his existence is not limited to this world, discontent for him is “a lively and energetic melancholy, a desire of who knows what, a kind of desperation that pleases, a propensity for a more vital life, for more sensitive sensations.” In other words, discontent enhances vital energy and, from that impetuous, albeit desperate, vitality an unexpected beauty can be born.

Discontent can therefore be seen from our human perspective as a flame that burns within us, feeds our spirit, enlightens us and others, motivates us and makes us truly alive. Even if there is no universal remedy for the discontent of every individual, where possible the best remedy is to learn to lend oneself to a simple empathetic listening of the other. This little deed, like a caress, can positively influence the other’s discontent, dissolving any hostility in our individual perception of reality, understanding with others that not everything is really so adverse to us, but there is something else underlying our compound existences that goes far beyond us. Affections and tendernesses that are difficult to explain but simple to appreciate.

The beauty of reality, despite everything, can educate and reconcile us with the past to see better in our lives and have hope for the future. A simile for a hopeful and flourishing life is found in poinsettias that react to the grip of the cold by flowering, making their agony a splendor, dyeing the declining leaves of bright red, the only color they can show off when the sap dries up in the rigors of winter. That bright red compensates for the modest flower and serves to attract the last pollinating insects to continue the cycle of life. Discontent, therefore, even on the verge of despair, can be resolved in an enveloping sparkle of life and a warm journey of satisfaction.

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