In the opening scene of Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis lifts a paperweight from his desk–a rose in full bloom, encased in glass–and tells his Oxford students that this rose is perfect because it will not age, will not decay, and can never be touched. “The most intense joy,” he argues, “lies not in the having…but in the desiring. Delight that never fades, bliss that is eternal…is only yours when what you most desire is just out of reach.”
Unattainability, he tells these fresh-faced young men, is the “essential quality” of perfection.
I doubt they believed him, but he’s right. Because once our longings are fulfilled, they die. Perhaps Buddha didn’t quite get it right; maybe it is not desire that is the root of all suffering but what we desire and how we carry that desire.
The modern world manipulates our longings. Porn, celebrity rags, get-rich-quick schemes, models–what can capitalism not encase in glass for profit?
But there’s no denying that the ideal is necessary. And our desire for it inevitable.
And our lives, against that glass-encased rose, will forever look incomplete. Tarnished. But this is not a bad thing.
For in the very incompleteness, we have an assurance of the continuity of life. And in that asymptotic movement toward our ideal, we encounter frustration, obstacles, challenge–the very stuff of life and of growth. Without the unattainable ideal, we would have no catalyst, and like a tree that is never pruned, instead of reaching skyward, we would simply tangle up with brambles, earthbound.