Spoiler Alert! This piece hinges on my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone called A Nice Place to Visit. You can stream season one, episode 28 if you want to watch it for yourself before you read on. Sorry about the spoiler.
Do you remember the episode of The Twilight Zone called A Nice Place to Visit? A small-time crook is killed in a shootout with police and wakes up to find himself in a paradise where a convivial man named Pip grants his every wish. The petty thief is given anything he asks for – an amazing apartment, mountains of cash, a gorgeous wardrobe, the company of beautiful, fawning women, thick steaks and fine wine, a roulette table where he seemingly cannot lose. He decides that he has somehow been placed in Heaven, despite all the terrible things he did on earth and dives headlong into this hedonistic Eden. And it’s glorious.
Until it isn’t. Eventually, boredom and restlessness set in. Having his every desire fulfilled starts to feel meaningless and dull. What fun is life without challenge or effort? The hoodlum begins to lament his placement in paradise. “If this is Heaven,” he cries. “ I’d almost rather be in the other place!” To which Pip replies, “Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven? This is the other place!
How are we to interpret this morality play? It perfectly exemplifies what we ought to know but which so often eludes us: happiness is not a thing; it is instead a state of being that is only felt in contrast to adversity, pain, and challenge.
If Hell is having every wish granted, then Rod Serling – the creator of The Twilight Zone – seems to be making the point that getting everything you want is a cruel form of punishment. “Now he has everything he’s ever wanted…and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity, “ Serling intones, suggesting that suffering is a gift.
Since time immemorial, people have wondered why, if God truly loves us, he would allow humans to suffer. Yet if we accept that happiness can only truly be experienced in direct contrast to pain, then how could he grant us free will and not allow suffering in the world? It’s like chiaroscuro in art, where light makes the shadows more defined and dramatic. Without the shadows, the painting is flat and meaningless. Art, like life, requires juxtaposition.
Getting everything you want is tiresome. As the Dalai Lama teaches, we should, “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”
The most interesting and inspiring stories of my life do not involve the times that things went smoothly and easily. They begin with failures, with confusion, with those times I took the wrong exit. I have learned and grown the most through times of adversity and challenge because those times create opposition. It’s only in the hard that I can fully feel the easy; only by comparing my disappointments and failures can I truly experience success.
Opposition is a feeling, a comparison between sensations and emotions that creates meaning. When, like the hoodlum in Hell, we seek a something – a beautiful house, fancy cars, money – we are often left empty when we achieve them. This is because what we really wanted all along were the feelings those things provide. So all that money wasn’t going to make the crook happy; what he really desired was the feeling of freedom he believed money would afford him. The crook didn’t really want lovely ladies to simply fawn over him; he truly desired the deep, true connection a loving relationship might provide. So even though he was given everything he (thought that he) wanted, he was left empty by wanting things in the first place.
So we strive for meaning rather than things and we embrace the contrast because the alternative is boring and hollow. It’s an important thing to remember the next time I’m complaining about things not going my way. Because perhaps they are.