We Just Don’t Fit – Human Spiritual Discontent and Dialogue

An iPub Perspective Editorial

By Rabbi Lewis John Eron, Ph.D.

By examining how religious traditions define and address spiritual discontent, we may find more similarities than differences. Therefore, through dialogue, we are able to share in our universal human desire to belong and overcome discontent.

It seems to me that the fundamental human spiritual problem is the persistent feeling that, somehow, we just don’t fit in this world. We know we should, since it was created for us, or we evolved to inhabit it, or both. This is not the time to argue the definition. But we just don’t fit. There is something not right. We bump into each other. We trip over things. We are often mistaken, confused, or just wrong. It’s like our clothes don’t fit. They are a bit too tight or a bit too loose. For our clothes, we need a tailor. What about for our souls?

The hands of a tailor working with fabric on a wooden table laden with scissors and pins.

Not to say that we, as a species, are naturally unhappy, dejected, or depressed. Our lives are filled with joy, laughter, beauty, sadness, tears, and shame. We survive defeats and celebrate triumphs. But beyond the ups and downs of life, there is always the sense that something is missing, something is off, or something just doesn’t fit.

There is a certain discontent built into being human. Perhaps we are too aware of our short time in this world. Perhaps we are too alert to the fact that we have little control over our fate. Perhaps there is always another mountain to climb. Perhaps we don’t like the weather.

So why do we feel unfulfilled? Why does life often seem meaningless? Why is it hard to be connected? Why does it seem that we need some sort of adjustment?

Our various religious traditions try to address this fundamental spiritual discontent. They strive to respond to the question of why there is something off in the way we are in this world. What is the cause, and what might be the solution? Since the feeling is so nebulous, the answers are diffuse. Our various traditions suggest various answers. In fact, each one may offer a few. But, each tradition seems to focus on one explanation with its corresponding solution.

Five pairs of hands holding puzzle pieces up to the setting sun.

It is a bit presumptuous to summarize any tradition in a few words; however, in this case, I will make an attempt. I know how hard it was for me as a Jew to condense 4,000 years of spiritual exploration in one sentence, so I am sure those who follow traditions other than my own will find fault in my descriptions. But I offer this as a handy mapping of humanity’s religious traditions and an opening for deeper dialogue.

So, what is the human problem, and what is the solution? For Western Religious traditions, it seems relatively straightforward:

For Christianity, the problem is sin, alienating us from God and each other, and the solution is grace – unbounded forgiveness and love. We are inherently sinful and must understand this and open ourselves to God’s generous gift of grace.

A hand holding a holy Quran aloft towards a white light shining down against a black background.

For Islam, the problem is disobedience, and the answer is submission. We are essentially rebellious, seeking our self-centered ends, and we need to submit ourselves to God, who is full of compassion and mercy.

For Judaism, I think the problem is folly, and the solution is wisdom. Left to ourselves, we human beings will make mistakes, act inappropriately, and pursue vanity. Our default is to err. We are subject to some moral entropy. The wisdom we need is inherent in Creation and Revelation. We need to open our hearts and minds so that wisdom can fill our thoughts and deeds.

For the spiritual traditions growing out of Hellenistic thought, the problem is ignorance. We lack intimate knowledge of ourselves and our world. As we acquire knowledge, we better understand how we fit into our community’s small world, the microcosmos, and the large world, the macrocosms.

Moving to Eastern traditions, where I am even more out of my depth, the problems and the solutions seem to me to focus on how we understand ourselves in our world.

For Hinduism, the problem is confusion, and the solution is the correct understanding. We see the world incorrectly, and by acting on our false perceptions, we err and throw our moral balance off. We can achieve human fulfillment by seeing the world as it really is.

For Buddhism, the problem is suffering, attaching ourselves to that which is passing. So long as we try to hold on to that which will eventually end, we will always be discontented. By letting go of attachment to that which is inherently impermanent, we can experience life in the timeless presence.

A black and white yin yang symbol with hands crossing inside, stylized as tree trunks, with leaves sprouting from the fingertips.

For Chinese traditions, the problem is imbalance. We must live in harmony with the forces of nature, the tides of human life, and the social world. We experience a growing sense of peace and contentment as we find more balance.

For nature-based traditions, the problem is alienation. We have cut ourselves off from the natural world that sustains us. We need to reconnect to the wellspring of life inherent in nature. We cannot feel fully alive without that vital connection.

And this list does not reflect the depth and breadth of the human spiritual imagination.

Many of us who participate deeply in our chosen spiritual traditions may resonate with these central themes of other traditions. It is likely that they appear, albeit with less emphasis, in our own. No one tradition has exclusive ownership. Yet, they may be hidden in texts whose interpretations are guided by a tradition’s major theme, in practices whose origins are not fully explored, and in rituals whose expression is not fully explored.

Our spiritual discontent is so deep that we often hold tightly onto one formulation of the problem and the solution, even if we do not find it completely satisfying. In frustration, we may abandon our inherited tradition or separate from one that had in the past given us strength without exploring the other themes hiding in our backyard. Sometimes we avoid looking deeper, fearing losing any comfort we may have already found.

Five hands holding puzzle pieces together in a circle, diffused against a soft orange glow.

It is here when dialogue can help overcome our spiritual discontent. By sharing how our various traditions deal with this common human problem, we gain a deeper understanding of the human spiritual search. We see many ways of framing the question and structuring the solution. We see that there is no one resolution and that the various approaches are not in competition. As we discover the major themes of other faith traditions as sub-themes within our own, we see how they complement and support each other. Through dialogue with others about the riches of their traditions, we discover riches within our own.

We begin to see a sense of unity within our diversity. We see that which is ultimately real expressed in various forms. As we understand the strengths and limitations of all humanity’s approaches to our shared spiritual discomfort, we can better understand ourselves and our traditions and deepen our love and appreciation of traditions different from our own and their adherents.

We all share that persistent feeling that we do not fit perfectly in this world. Over time our religious traditions explored a range of approaches to deal with this sense of discontent. Various answers emerged as major and minor themes as these traditions unfolded and grew. All were good and none was perfect. Now that we are living ever more tightly in a world community, we need to learn about each and from each other and deepen our ability to overcome our common spiritual discontent. Our understanding of the problem and its solution influences the cultural expression of the people who seek wisdom from their spiritual sources.

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