One of my favorite stories is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. The plot involves residents of hell taking a day trip to heaven. The interesting thing is that most of them don’t realize they were in hell, and don’t like it when they experience heaven. Most choose to go back to hell.
It’s not a fire and brimstone hell, just a grey, bleak, lonely place where all the conversations and concerns are shallow. Heaven is even less like the common vision of clouds and harps. It is beautiful, but also terrifying, painful, and really, really hard. The grass and trees and water are literally hard to the touch for the visitors. Those who have been there for some time have become more substantial, and for them the blades of grass softly bend underfoot. But the visitors are such shadowy, weak, ghost-like beings that they can hardly handle the hardness of the more real heavenly environs. It takes time, effort, and struggle to be able to enjoy the wonders of this heaven. In other words, heaven isn’t easy or safe, but it’s good.
We often strive to find some imagined heaven – some sort of stasis where no conflict or struggle or hard work exist – and in so doing become disillusioned by the fact that we never get there. The thing is, I don’t think we’d actually want it if we found it. It would look more like Lewis’s hell than heaven. Safe, stagnant, dull. A place where we become less real, and lose touch with what we want and who we are.
Think of the times when you are genuinely fulfilled, or in a state of flow. Often they involve hard work and mental or physical challenges. Even moments of apparent ease are only really enjoyable when they are earned, and when they are not indefinite, but part of a progression towards something greater still, like water stations in a marathon.
Without vision, people perish. We need goals and challenges. Not in order to get some reward or prize at the end, or to reach a state of rest, but to enjoy the challenges while we’re in them. If we achieve them it’s not so we can finally be done, but so that we can set our sights still higher. Those in the story who had been in heaven for some time were working to gain more strength to scale the mountain, and then the next thing beyond it. Heaven was heaven – in full bloom and overpoweringly gorgeous – precisely because the growth never ceased. Growth only happens with work.
Don’t put off enjoyment until you arrive at some imagined goal or end state. If you arrive there, it won’t be that enjoyable. If you don’t, you’ll have missed out on the opportunity to enjoy the process itself. This doesn’t mean it’s just about the journey – a journey without a destination isn’t a journey. It is about the destination, but because arrival means the ability to set out for the next, still greater destination as a new traveler who has grown through the trials of the previous leg.
Being fulfilled requires far more hard work than being dull, listless, or depressed. But it’s worth it.