I was down on the floor making a shipment and, out of the blue, Philippe asked me whether you had to be a believer in order to be a scholar of religion, which started a bit of a discussion. The place I went to was, however, more influenced by Garrison Keeler than by Rupa Goswami...
Garrison Keeler is the raconteur par excellence who has a weekly show on American Public Radio called "Lake Wobegon Days." It's folksy, homespun and all that. I hadn't heard him in a long time when I accidentally caught the program on the radio Sunday afternoon, and quickly got caught up in his mastery of the art.
Every story must have a moral, which rides on the back of the rasa, the emotional payoff that is the mark of a successful story. Let us just skip all the rasa-samagri and go straight to that moral, which in this case was something along the lines of "The life best lived is one lived wholeheartedly." In other words, longing for what you do not have, not giving your fullest to the situation in which you find yourself, is a recipe for living a disastrous life of deception, defeat and depression.
Keeler's story was one of a woman who decided to not follow a romantic gamble, a will o' the wisp, the chimera of an old boyfriend who had taken on a life of his own in her fantasy world as an ideal lover, and instead stuck with what she had, the reality she had built with her husband and all the substantial accomplishments that entailed: comfort, security, the subtle psychological links that are built up over a lifetime together.
Of course, the story's effect was made in part by presenting the old boyfriend as something of a flake, a sympathetic flake, but a flake nevertheless: a Lutheran minister who had lost his faith, who now wanted to leave the ministry and go to New York to try his hand at acting, even if it meant waiting tables--that sort of thing.
The wisdom is wise indeed: Life not lived with one's entire being certainly means that something is going or has gone wrong. But a zen-like total sense of being is rare, even as a momentary epiphany, what to speak of ever becoming a permanent state. The path to achieving it is one that is long and arduous, and filled with momentous adjustments and crises.
In talking to Philippe, I spoke of the urge to surpass oneself that seems to be an essential part of the human being. When unfulfilled, one usually turns to vicarious pleasures or to sense gratification--to the trivial--and an illusion of contentment. We admire those who seek self-surpassment--athletes and other great achievers--whom we instinctively sense as being somehow closer to God in the sense that they (seem to) possess an integrity of being and opulence, the opulences that Krishna tells us are a reflection of his being. Somehow we know that God calls on us to surpass ourselves, to give ourselves completely to something, that something being, to one degree or another, Him.
But, as with all things, there is a rub. There are "somethings" that are most certainly NOT God. There are purusharthas, and then there is the parama-purushartha. Those who commit suicide in the name of God, for instance, are following their instinct to give themselves completely, to transcend their personal will for the will of God, but they are totally misguided. As Mahaprabhu told Sanatan: You don't get God by committing suicide.
The Hindu idea of rebirth, which sees each life as a step on an eternal continuum striving towards God and Perfection, helps us to ride the middle path between the urge for absolutes and the urge to find contentment. Those religions that make this one life an all-or-nothing gamble of such portent that our eternal destiny rides on it encourage hopelessness as much as hope, and even the promise of God's mercy trivializes salvation if it can be had by a deathbed act of contrition.
But the Bhagavatam does not, for all that, trivialize the task that is bounden every human being:
mAnuSyam artha-dam anityam apIha dhIraH
tUrNaM yateta na pated anu-mRtyu yAvan
niHzreyasAya viSayaH khalu sarvataH syAt
Now that you have obtained this human body, after so many repeated births in other species of life, remember just how rare it is. It can give you the greatest benefit, but it too is temporary, a huge window of opportunity for a brief moment in eternity. Think coolly and then quickly put yourself to the effort and don't give it up, even unto the very time of death, so that you may attain the object through which the supreme benefit is achieved. [BhP 11.9.29]
So, though the Gita tells us to cultivate contentment, it is not at the expense of the real and momentous task of human life, success or failure being relative terms where this effort is concerned, for in it there is never any loss or diminution, whatever it seems in terms of simple contentment.