For the past few weeks I have been watching Jeremy Paxman’s documentary about World War One. It’s terrific.
The conditions of the soldiers in the trenches were horrible. I can just about imagine standing in a muddy trench, boots soaking wet, and hoping and praying that the next bomb doesn’t land on me or that I won’t have to ‘go over the top’ into a barrage of machine gun fire. I say I can sort of imagine it but in truth I can’t. The nightmarish aspect of war is missing.
If I had been there I would have been constantly thinking of home and how nice it would be to be sitting out in the garden and reading a book before tea. I know I would have given almost anything for the firing to stop. And if by some miracle it had stopped, the next day I would have thought, ‘If only my feet were dry I’d be happy’. Then the sun comes out and dries my boots, and I am indeed happy for a while. But then it occurs to me how wonderful it would be if I could escape from the war altogether, perhaps to some remote Scottish island where I could gaze out over the grey ocean and luxuriate in the absence of bombs, mud, discomfort and danger. I am then whisked away to Jura and find myself staring out at the cold Atlantic and I am supremely happy – for a while.
After a few days of looking at the sea and growing accustomed to the peace and quiet, I would probably think to myself, ‘If only I had a friend here’. Sure enough, my wish is granted but within a week I find myself pining for some female company, too. Lo and behold, a nice woman appears. After a week, bliss turns into ‘could be happier’ when I find myself thinking that she really isn’t that good looking after all and her conversation is a bit dull. My friend is also starting to get on my nerves. And so it goes, on and on and on. Finally I find myself wishing I was on my own again, though not necessarily back in the mud in Flanders.
Satisfaction is a constantly shifting horizon. I have never reached a point where I was content with what I had. Nothing is ever enough. I view this as a form ingratitude and greed but can do nothing about it. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer thought we are driven forward by a desire to assuage our dissatisfaction and in my case he was right. I’m just not very good at counting my blessings. After a short period of acclimatization I always start to take things for granted and wonder why things aren’t better.
For someone who is so constitutionally dissatisfied the only course of action is constant change. You have to keep moving from one activity to the next before dissatisfaction sets in again. You go from reading, to listening to music, to talking to a friend down the pub, to work, to writing a blog, to doing a spot of gardening, to watching Manchester United play Chelsea on BT Sport, to having dinner, to walking in the countryside, to sleeping, to thinking in bed on a Sunday morning and back again to reading. Wash, rinse, and repeat until death.
Yet perhaps this really isn’t so bad. After all, who believes that there is a point of stasis where absolute happiness resides? I like my house but wouldn’t want to stay at home all day, every day. I like reading but who wants to read all the time? The same goes for all activities. You can have too much of a good thing and the proverb, ‘variety is the spice of life’, turns out to be true for me.
I’ll give the last word to Dr. Johnson, who always has something interesting to say: “Life must be filled up, and the man who is not capable of intellectual pleasures must content himself with such as his senses can afford”.