When I was a child, and was told something or another about heaven, the way I chose to imagine it was as an infinite freedom to play GameBoy. Now that I am a man, I think this might be a better description of the other destination. Nevertheless, our present conceptions of what would make us happy can be a helpful tool for discerning where our heart lies, what we really long for, and whether or not these longings are properly ordered to our happiness.
Another angle for addressing the same question is to consider our frustrations. What is getting in the way of my happiness? What longings do I have that are unfulfilled? What can possibly satisfy me? One beautiful meditation on this theme comes from a source that might at first appear surprising as a locus theologicus: YouTube.
Several years ago, The Gregory Brothers released a music video which offers a poignant meditation on themes of longing and desire titled “Can’t Hug Every Cat.” In the video, a young woman named Debbie relates the frustration she feels in loving cats so much that she longs to hug every cat, a desire which she knows (deep down) to be unattainable in this life. Debbie is well aware of the predicament that many cats in this harsh world find themselves in: many don’t have a home, others do not experience the love and affection which help them to flourish and fulfill their cat destiny, and still more lack the smart look that would come from wearing little bow ties. But even more than her concern for the cats themselves, Debbie is stuck between her infinite desire to hug every cat, and her sober realization that this end is not attainable in this life.
How should a Thomist respond to Debbie’s dilemma? There is an old adage which goes something like “Seldom affirm, never deny, and always distinguish.” What this means is that we should always try to discern the truth which may lie hidden in whatever idea or human experience we encounter. This does not mean rushing to affirm every idea as being necessarily true and good, but it does mean casting a thoughtful gaze upon the world and the marvels which it contains, so as to find the ray of Truth that may enlighten a particular concept. Finally, it means that we should always distinguish between this ray of Truth and the fullness of the light that Christ has cast upon our darkness.
According to Thomas Aquinas, “there is this difference between animals and other natural things, that when these latter are established in the state becoming their nature, they do not perceive it, whereas animals do. And from this perception there arises a certain movement of the soul in the sensitive appetite; which movement is called delight.”
In other words, cats can truly experience delight in perceiving that they are established in the state becoming their nature, an ability they lose once they have shuffled off this mortal coil. Unlike their human minions, cats do not struggle with existential angst. So long as a cat’s basic needs are fulfilled, it will be able to take delight in life. Nevertheless, the ability of cats to perceive their fitting state and take delight in it entails a certain responsibility on the part of human beings to avoid causing unnecessary pain to cats, and, when appropriate, to contribute to their flourishing by proportionate means.
In concrete terms, this means that it is good to desire to undertake affectionate actions such as hugging cats or clothing them with little bow ties. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to allow our affectionate actions towards our furry friends to distract us from our higher duties or from caring for our fellow human beings, who, despite occasionally appearing to be less attractive than their feline counterparts, possess an infinitely higher dignity due to their immortal and rational souls. As Debbie implicitly realizes, if we were to leave everything behind so that we could devote ourselves exclusively to hugging cats, our lives would thereby be lacking something of the balance that is fitting to true human flourishing—and we wouldn’t even be able to hug every cat anyway.
This consideration leads us to a second point: according to St. Thomas, we are not able to desire natural finite things infinitely (for instance infinite food or infinite drink), although we can desire them in an infinite succession. In other words, although we can imagine spending eternity hugging cats in an infinite succession, deep down we know that we will never be fulfilled in this way, because whenever we are hugging one particular cat we are of necessity prevented from hugging every cat. When we desire non-physical things as objects of our desire, however, we are not so limited: as Thomas states, “He that desires riches, may desire to be rich, not up to a certain limit, but to be simply as rich as possible.”
What then are we to long for? In whom shall rest our hope? My help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth—for no one can love God as much as he should be loved, because his goodness is infinite. Only he can satisfy the longings he has put into our hearts.
Image: Carl, I can has prom date?