Can Finite Goods Bring Joy?

By Jayson M. Brunelle

All emotions are feelings, but not all feelings are emotions.  According to Aquinas, there are 11 basic, fundamental emotions:  love, desire, joy, hate, aversion, sorrow, hope, courage, despair, fear and anger.  All other emotions are either nuances or combinations of these basic passions.  Moreover, Aquinas groups certain emotions based on their function and relation to other emotions.  For example, you see a new car that you love in the showroom; you experience the desire to own it; when you realize that you can afford it and decide to purchase the car, you experience the joy of possession or ownership. Conversely, you hate hospitals; you are diagnosed with a serious illness and must be hospitalized, and to this you have an aversion; while lying alone in the hospital bedroom, you experience the sorrow of having to stay there.  These two sets of emotions, positive and negative, comprise what Aquinas terms the concupiscible appetite.  Dr. Conrad Baars suggests that we refer to these emotions as the “humane emotions.”   Humane emotions are stimulated by what we know or sense is good or bad for us.  On the other hand, the emotions of hope, courage, despair and fear can be referred to as the utilitarian emotions, or passions of the irascible appetite, and are stimulated when one must respond to a threat to one’s wellbeing, one’s loved ones, one’s possessions, one’s peace of mind, etc.  Essentially, there are two ways of responding to a threat.  We can respond with optimism or hope and act courageously in the face of the threat, or we can respond pessimistically or despair and consequently experience the emotion of fear.  The humane emotions of love, desire, joy, hate, aversion, and sorrow cause an inner movement in the psyche.  For example, we are moved with love when in the presence of the beloved; we are moved to tears of sorrow when our beloved must depart, etc.  To better understand the operations of the pleasure appetite, let us begin with the first and most fundamental emotion: love.  When our exterior faculties of sense knowledge (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch) perceive something as genuinely good for us and perfective of our nature, the first and most fundamental emotion of the pleasure appetite is stimulated within us.  This emotion is, of course, love.  This emotion of love may grow into the emotion of desire, and upon possession of the good, the emotion of desire evolves into the emotion of joy.

But there is something quite curious about the joy that accompanies the possession of a  finite good.  When, for instance, I love something that is finite and limited and desire to own it but don’t have the resources to purchase the object of my desire, the finite object seems to possess a greater value while it is not had by me.  Strangely, the moment I come into possession of the good, the item seems to lose some of its value.  It is no longer out of my reach.  I now possess it.  But with that possession comes a certain letdown.  I find that the object that I so loved and desired seemed to be worth more when I couldn’t possess it; now that I do, it seems to have depreciated in value.  This phenomenon, strange as it may seem at first glance, really does have an explanation, and it has to do with the human persons’ desire for ultimate satisfaction, fulfillment and joy.  Thus, we might say that our desire for finite goods points to and is really an expression of man’s desire to possess the perfect, infinite good, which is God Himself.

If, for example, one were asked what it is that he/she desired above all, he/she would invariably answer “happiness.”  Moreover, if one had to choose between imperfect happiness or perfect happiness, one would, of course, choose perfect happiness.  Thus, we can rightly state that every one of our actions is a manifestation of the ubiquitous human desire for perfect happiness and joy that only the infinite God can satisfy.   And since the material goods of earth can only satisfy us in certain extremely limited, finite ways, we necessarily experience a “letdown” when we finally come into the possession of a finite good, even though it may have been something for which we ardently longed.  The “letdown,” then, is the realization that no matter how “good” this finite good is, ultimately, it is, indeed, finite and limited, and will not satisfy that nagging human desire for perfect, infinite happiness.

This explains the dissatisfaction experienced by so many wealthy individuals, people who seem to have it all and yet are still not deeply happy.  Moreover, it explains the curious phenomenon of always wanting/needing more.  Have you ever noticed that regardless of how much wealth one possesses, it never seems to be enough?  This is due to the reality that no amount of finite goods can ever fill up that infinitely large, God-shaped hole in our hearts.  Thus, the human person can only experience perfect joy, satisfaction and happiness when he/she comes into the possession of the infinite good that is God.  For, it is as St. Augustine has so eloquently articulated, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

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