WHY THE CHICKEN CROSSED THE ROAD
And Other Hidden Enlightenment Teachings
By Dean Sluyter
Illustrated by Maggy Sluyter
Copyright © 1998 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
CHAPTER 24. (I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION
’Cause I try and I try and I try and I try . . .
– Words and music by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Once in his old age, Groucho Marx was asked by an interviewer what he would change if he had his life to live over. He replied, “Try more positions.” This is funny, like almost everything Groucho said, but it also captures succinctly our failure to gain fulfillment—satisfaction—despite the widening variety and escalating intensity of our finite experiences. As the finite keeps refusing to satisfy us, we keep turning it to different positions, finding different angles from which to enter or be entered by it, but, as they say in Yiddish, Gornisht helfen—“Nothing helps.”
It has been said that we are all born with a God-shaped hole in our soul and spend our lives trying to fill it with other things.
My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is.
– Psalm 63:1
So we stuff ourselves till we’re full and we’re filled, but we’re still not fulfilled. When Gulliver describes the habits of humans to a race of eminently sensible aliens, they are amazed to learn “that we ate when we were not hungry, and drank without the provocation of thirst.” And in affluent societies we have the resources to push the experiment to the limit, gorging ourselves not only on food, but on clothes, cars, and toys of all kinds.
Thus “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is the anthem not only of a great rock ’n’ roll band, and not only of the restless ’60s generation, but of the human condition itself.
As children we press our noses up against the toy store window, peering at our object of desire—the Flexible Flyer sled, the Barbie doll—and imagine that if only we could have that one toy, that would be . . . It! Significantly, we never define It. It is, in fact, the undefinable satisfaction that we sense must be available somewhere, somehow. (Perhaps we vaguely picture ourselves sledding through the climactic moments of some epic movie, Flexibly Flying over the horizon, silhouetted against a brilliant sunset, as violins swell in orgasmic crescendo.) Children who never get the shiny toy may grow up to butt their heads perpetually against that frustration. But in America, most of us get what we want. Then what?
The thrill is gone.
– B. B. King
For a few weeks or months, Barbie really does seem to be It. But then we get itchy again. If only I could get Malibu Barbie . . . If only I could get Ken and Skipper and Miko . . . If only I could get the Barbie Convertible . . . if only I could get the Barbie Dream House . . . The toys get bigger and more expensive as I try and I try and I try and I try, and they’re all great as far as they go, but none of them goes all the way. If only I could get into Princeton . . . If only I could get into the corner office . . . If only I could get into bed with that warm, life-size Barbie (or Ken). That would be It! Commercial culture has always worked by exploiting this hunger, from Dinah Shore’s mid-1950s jingle, “Life is sweeter, it’s completer, in a Chevy,” to this week’s mail-order catalog, each page offering the ultimate gadget, the one so impossibly neato-keen that it will make my head explode. Whoever dies with the most toys wins. But wins what?
Our pleasures and possessions are like ice cream cones: brightly colored, seductively sweet, and, from the first moment, already melting. They’re like gaily wrapped Christmas presents, but we’ve been through enough Christmas mornings to know the sweet anticipation (as long as they’re still wrapped, they could still be It) and the secret, bitter aftertaste (no matter how good the stuff is, it’s after all just stuff). We live in a world of objects and events, goods and services; but somehow no goods deliver The Goods, no services render The Service we want rendered. What’s left but to try more positions?
It’s this failure to deliver satisfaction that has led some spiritual traditions to condemn worldly pleasures. But there’s nothing actually “bad” or sinful about them—they just don’t work. As we’ve seen, amartia, sin, merely means “off the mark.” What’s “sinful” about worldly pleasure is simply that it doesn’t hit the spot, and it can distract us from the spot if we fixate on it. Wealth is wonderful. It can buy comfort; it can buy delight; but it can’t buy de light. Beyond a certain point, those worldly pleasures just don’t get us off. As in the old reefer-madness movies, we find ourselves back at the school yard, pleading with the neighborhood pusher: “Joe, Joe, I need something stronger—Flexible Flyers don’t do it for me anymore!”
Hence the quiet, slow-motion panic in the eyes of certain leisured ladies who spend their days in the department store, shopping for satisfaction, never quite finding which department it’s in. Or in the eyes of certain outwardly successful gentlemen: I did everything and got everything they said would make me happy. Now what? Maybe if I trade in all my rusty old toys for some shiny new ones . . . Maybe if I trade in my rusty old bedmate for a shiny new one . . .
Which brings us to a central theme of the Stones song: sex as a proposed solution to dissatisfaction. That we procreate by entering an ecstatic state is certainly one of the more astonishing bonuses of human life, apparently unique in the animal kingdom. But sexual ecstasy is oversold and overburdened; we see it as our one shot at bliss. In that one fragile basket we place all our eggs (or sperms, as the case may be), putting impossible pressure on our partner (It must be her fault I’m not happy!) and on ourself (Was I good?). It don’t take no Dr. Ruth to tell us that such pressure precludes the relaxed, loving playfulness that makes even sexual happiness possible. Thus the proliferation of books and videos promising fulfillment through Olympic-class erotic technique. (Try more positions indeed.) But if sex is our ultimate happiness, when beauty and potency fade it must leave us in despair. And even in the bloom of sexual vigor, even at the moment of orgasm, a still small voice may whisper, “This is very fine, but it isn’t It.”
The quest for fulfillment, which sex impersonates (sometimes very convincingly), is the elemental, driving force of all life, expressed so powerfully in the insistent, erotic rhythm of this song’s chorus. The near-incomprehensible lyrics of the verses work by transcending specificity; what filters through Jagger’s frantic jabber is a portrait of the hot and bothered organism seeking here, there, everywhere, through the entire world of goods and services, bodies and positions, for the orgasmic Ahhh! that will make everything all right forever. But because everywhere means every location in the time-space universe of bounded objects and events, and because our hunger for fulfillment is boundless, any such search must fail. And it’s not just material possessions and sexual positions that are unsatisfying either. It’s also the more sophisticated seductions of political positions, philosophical positions, positions of power, even “spiritual” positions.
But within the structure of that problem is a hint at its solution. The very fact that we have a notion of satisfaction, and feel that there’s something wrong with not getting it, means we intuitively know satisfaction, and know it is our birthright—perhaps even our nature.
What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim?
Limitless craving implies a limitless craver. If we can just leave off pursuing unsatisfying objects and rest within our own limitlessness, perhaps satisfaction can be found there. By relinquishing all positions and reposing in positionlessness, we find that we can’t get satisfaction because we are satisfaction. We’ve been going through life substituting values for x in the equation x = It, till one day we discover that “Tag, you’re It.” Then everything is satisfying, including the doll and the sled, the goods and the services, and the absence thereof. At last we realize the ironic promise of Jagger’s double negative: can’t get no satisfaction means we can’t avoid satisfaction.
If there is an Infinite, by definition there can’t be anyplace where it is not. (If it were everywhere in the universe except the dot over this i, it wouldn’t be infinite.) So every ounce of the unfulfilling finite must somehow be infinite fulfillingness in drag. We just have to get it out of that odd costume, surprise it in the raw. But whatever skillful means we use to do that, they’ve got to be real. Let’s not settle for being Three-Inch Mystics, whose spirituality travels only the distance from their eyes (which read the books) to their mouths (which talk the talk). Like aroused lovers, we’ve got to dedicate ourselves to entering and being entered by the One, just as determinedly as we tried and we tried and we tried and we tried to get it on with the many. To give satisfaction, the experience of the Infinite has to pierce through our skin and surge through our blood more powerfully than nicotine or heroin, money or sex.
► Buy Why the Chicken Crossed the Road in paperback.