The pursuit of fulfillment has been the focus of philosophy from the very beginning. It was Socrates who first argued that all men seek "happiness," though translation can be misleading. After all, the Greek word commonly translated as "happiness" is eudaemonia (εὐδαίμων), which literally means "nobility of spirit," and which is not at all the same meaning as the English word "happiness." We generally think of "happiness" in binary terms: "happiness" as opposed to "suffering." But this is not at all what Socrates was talking about.
And so it is for this reason that we will discuss fulfillment- a far more specific concept- rather than "happiness."
So, according to philosophers- or at least, those of the early Socratic tradition-, all men seek fulfillment. And at first glance, that may sound ridiculous. Was Hitler seeking "fulfillment?" Stalin seeking "fulfillment?" These are difficult questions. Because it is easier to believe that certain men are inherently evil than it is to believe that all men share in a singular humanity, however far they have wandered from it. How are we to believe that drug dealers and rapists and child sex traffickers are somehow seeking "fulfillment?"
For what it is worth, I am a Buddhist. A teacher once told me that within every individual- no matter how evil!- there is a seed of Awakening, what a Catholic might call the Imago Dei, the Image of God. As the Bible says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him." (Genesis 1:27, KJV) And so although this seed- this Image of God- may be so deeply buried that it may never flourish, still there it is. So the question is not, "Do we all seek fulfillment?" We certainly do. No, the question is, "What is it that prevents us from realizing the fulfillment we all seek?"
How is it that some of us go so far astray?
There are two answers to this question, one religious and one practical. We will skim past the religious answer- not because it is not important but simply because this is not a blog about religion- and discuss the practical answer in depth. Still, the religious answer provides an excellent metaphor for the practical answer, and so its value cannot be overestimated.
And so, the religious answer:
The true nature within us is buried by craving, what in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition is referred to as klesa- that is, a "stain" or "defilement"- and what in the Judeo-Christian tradition is referred to as sin- that is, a kind of corruption, though the words in Hebrew and in Greek both literally mean "to miss the mark." In Buddhism, this occurs because of our cravings, what we might call the passions. And these cravings corrupt what is pure within us, and result in all of our happiness and suffering in this world. Because truth is ultimately beyond happiness and suffering; the truth is something else entirely.
And now, for the practical answer, which is two-fold:
First, although we all seek fulfillment, we are led astray by our cravings, by our passions- that is, by our attachments to material things. These attachments result in us being pulled in countless directions, and we find ourselves weak, confused, and despondent; we find ourselves distracted and fragmented. Tragically, no matter how much we satisfy these passions, they are never conquered; no matter how much we eat, or drink, still before long we find ourselves hungry, and thirsty- and that goes for every other material pleasure as well: money, glory, power. No matter the pleasure, the story is always the same, and its conclusion is always empty of meaning.
Furthermore, few of us really know ourselves. The axiom gnothi seauton (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) was written across the door at Delphi: "Know thyself." Few of us know ourselves, and so few of us really know what it is that really fulfills us, or what cravings hide within us that prevent us from realizing that fulfillment. In most cases, this lack of self-knowledge results in boredom, frustration, and nihilism; in some rare cases, however, it results in the kind of monsters discussed earlier. History has no shortage of examples illustrating the dangers of passion run amok.
And so the practical answer must address both of these problems: It must address the fixations that creep about in the subconscious mind, and it must address that most people really do not know themselves at all. Because it is when we do not know what we want that we fall prey to craving. We are a meaning-seeking species; without a positive goal, we will accept a negative goal. But we do require a goal. And that goal must give context to our lives as social creatures.
In fact, research has shown that even drug addiction is linked to a lack of meaning: Rats removed from their families will choose drugs over food, while rats allowed to remain with their families do not. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is so successful in spite of the modern psychological paradigm's lack of ability to explain its success. The fact is that we all desire purpose in our lives. And that is, ultimately, the secret to fulfillment: We all need a mission, and that mission needs to have a meaning beyond ourselves.
~ Joshua van Asakinda