Writings by Cole Huffman


Where the Wildean Things Are

Lately I’ve encountered a few situations wherein someone got whatever it was he or she thought they wanted, maybe even longed for: someone’s affections or acceptance, an accomplishment, or the acquisition of something new.  But soon thereafter they find themselves in the throes of dissatisfaction.  It’s common to everyone’s experience sooner or later—how well I remember the surprising let-down years ago after buying the vehicle I’d long wanted— especially the more weighted our desires are for whatever it is we thought would delight us but has instead disappointed or even disillusioned us. 

Oscar Wilde, a voracious man who denied himself no pleasure he wanted, is purported to have said that there are two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.  (It occurs to me just now there is probably not a finer one-line commentary, even if unintended, on the central message of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.)

The tragedies in getting what we want, to put it Wildean, are not always to the same scale.  There is vast difference between the post-purchase dissonance one might feel after buying a car, for instance—the car one was sure he really wanted, but after driving it a few days he found fault with the suspension and flaws in the design and regretted spending more than he’d planned—there is all the difference between that post-purchase dissonance and the postpartum depression of one who looked forward to her own baby’s birthday ever since she was a little girl playing with her dolls, but now the child rests in her arms and she is overcome with labor pains of the heart and mind that she cannot push out of herself.
I look at my five children and wonder, with their “whole lives still ahead of them” as we say of people their age, when those greater dissonances and disappointments will emerge for them?  Because I know they will, perhaps even relentlessly, either in school or among friends, in dating or marriage and family, in the career track, in church affiliation, in geographical locale, in personal health, in material assets—maybe all of the above.  I know this because of theology: the world is fallen and none of us are exempt its fallen effects, whether we’re on the upside of getting what we want out of life or the downside in never quite getting there. 
But that’s the funny stride of the world because of its groaning in our fallenness: sometimes the worst thing that happens to you is getting on the upside, getting what you want.  When up is down because you turn boastful or otherwise conceited on the upside of getting what you want; or you grow bored and perpetually in need of a new thrill; or you find more complications and complexities attend your advancement or achievement, whatever it is. 
In short, you become susceptible to a certain kind of temptation—the temptation of disparaging it, demeaning it, treating the person or thing you wanted for so long as someone/something that doesn’t really matter to you that much after all, little better than an accoutrement.  I do not mean to exaggerate when I offer that this dynamic plays out, yes, tragically, in hundreds of thousands of relationships, jobs, and arenas of commerce every day.
Sometimes we give in to this temptation to disparage or demean our getting what we wanted because of fears of losing it or regrets we carry in gaining it; sometimes as a way of relieving the stress of our achievement.  Sometimes we give in to it to reassert our personal liberty or reclaim an identity we’re feeling insecure about.  Sometimes we give in to reassure ourselves that we’re still “the same me.”  Sometimes—rarer these times but nevertheless—we give in to this temptation because we want to justify indifference or malice.
But it’s giving in to this temptation, I think, that renders the possessor or achiever—the one who gets what he wants—a walking tragedy.  The gain or accomplishment itself, getting what one wants, is not the tragedy but the resulting lack of responsible or appreciative stewardship of it is.  Perhaps this is why Jesus’ parables involving stewards are mostly tragedies: what makes the stewards in those stories unfaithful or resentful or indifferent toward the master who entrusted good things to them was those good things aren’t enough for them after all.  Not that they wanted more from their masters—not at all!  It’s that they ended up actually wanting discontentment with the master more.  Their discontent, in some strange way, felt better to them than contented, grateful stewardship and service.
So I’m thinking now of how often I live the tragic storyline that is succumbing to this temptation which specters getting what I want in and out of life?  It’s not just the current tragedy of those whose stories I mentioned in the opening paragraph.  It’s my tragedy too. 

This temptation is a quiet stalker on everything good that God has entrusted to me.  Too often I don’t detect its presence.  But seeing it in others, I am seeing it in myself.  And I am slowly recognizing that I can’t dismiss it as a personality quirk or even a character flaw (because we live with our quirks and flaws easily enough, even proudly).  It is instead a failure of my worship, my own response to God.  Because disparaging or demeaning or being too quickly dulled to or disappointed by the good God has both given me and permitted me to achieve—people, places, things—is ultimately not a failure of contentment, but contentment as worship.  And this is a real tragedy of life.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:53 PM