restless hearts

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-T.S. Eliot

What are we searching for? I honestly don’t know how the majority of people would respond to this question. I’m not even sure how I would answer this myself. I guess a lot of people are searching for someone to love, because we all feel that need, that sense of emptiness at the thought of going home alone, or the thought of going on through life without someone close. I suppose others of us are looking for success, a good job that will provide the necessities and comforts of life, like a place to live and food and a bit of money to burn, etc. And there are those who search for justice, truly devoting themselves to social work, seeking peace in the world. Other people pursue knowledge, seeking to learn, to gain a philosophic or scientific understanding of the world and existence and everything else. There are those who search for God, dedicating their lives – anything they think about, every action they take – to service and to a better understanding of their creator… Lovers, dreamers, activists, workaholics, alcoholics, materialists, artists, and everyone in-between are searching for that thing to make them happy and bring them peace. That thing to give them meaning.

But what does all the searching mean? It feels that somehow any kind of searching is connected somehow, and not just by the simple awareness that life must have a purpose. The pursuit of any purpose, if too self-centered, is meaningless and worthless. Somehow there must be a sense of things – other people, other places, other beings – outside oneself. I guess this is one of those relational things, something that often gets lost in the bigness of life. There are so many activities that vie for my attention, it hardly seems like there is time to accomplish anything. I don’t suppose that’s entirely true, but you probably get the idea. Whether I realize it or not, every bit of my day is prioritized, organized in little chunks of time as to what gets my attention. There is always time, but what am I spending time on?

Spending time searching for something that has meaning. I don’t know quite what that means, but I just scanned back over what I’ve written so far, and that seems to be the best I can do. In order to get anything done, I need to make it a priority. I need to consider it important enough to spend time on. But even that’s not enough, because I could spend every second of the rest of my life writing, scribbling down thoughts, pounding out questions and answers and opinions and arguments… and after all this, have nothing. Because there is no meaning in writing, in the actual task. Meaning comes from what results from the writing. Meaning comes to others when they read what has been written. I suppose this could be said, in slightly modified terms, of almost anything. But to suggest that I do not have time is to suggest that I am dead. It is a shameless conviction to assert that I am powerless in my circumstances. It’s an apathy of the mind and the soul and the spirit, a depression of the will, and it destroys the creative ability of any person. If you take a look at the great people of history, scan the shelves at a bookstore, stroll the galleries of the world, attend a concert, or look at the people you admire most in life… They’re people who are searching, and there seems to be a holy fear in their lives, whether they acknowledge it or not, that the only thing worse than not finding, is not looking at all.

Maybe we search for many things at the same time, but the thing we find is something we didn’t expect at all. Maybe we seek God and a loving relationship and justice and success… But maybe the searching itself is a condition of the soul, a symptom of dissatisfaction, of yearning; there’s something that we’re trying to fill, some ache we’re trying to assuage, or some desire we’re attempting to satisfy. If searching is the active participation in life, then it’s also the way I work to repair the condition of my soul. I guess Jesus said something like this, that those who seek would find, but I wonder if our searching can only take us so far. Maybe it just brings us to an awareness of our dissatisfaction; it just creates the questions that can’t really be answered until we finally surrender. Until we consent to God in an active act of passive surrender. Maybe purpose constricts and limits our surrender. The longer we search and the better we are at asking questions and performing the activities that we feel bring us worth and create meaning in our lives, the harder it is to relinquish the control we feel that we have gained. It’s a scary thing to let go, to surrender control of my life. To let go my dreams and desires, the precious things I hold close to my heart, and to lay down my life creates a feeling of terror, a feeling that I am forfeiting the very things that make me human. I am letting go choice and control, and the only thing that seems to be left is hope. Hope that there is something better, something to be gained by giving up what I have. And our surrender isn’t the type that destroys, as we fear it will be, but it is a surrender that brings life, that brings meaning. Because it is borne of love.


who are we?

The space of the world is immense, before me and around me;
If I turn quickly, I am terrified, feeling space surround me;
Like a man in a boat on very clear, deep water, space frightens and confounds me.

I see myself isolated in the universe, and wonder
What effect I can have. My hands wave under
The heavens like specks of dust that are floating asunder.

I hold myself up, and feel a big wind blowing
Me like a gadfly into the dusk, without my knowing
Whither or why or even how I am going....

-D.H. Lawrence, “Song of a Man Who is Not Loved”

A lot of old thoughts — ideas and stories and conversations — have come drifting back to me in the last couple days. I don’t know why, but I’ve been more than a little disconcerted lately. And I think that’s why these past-tense circumstances are floating up in my mind, unchecked and unguarded, and they’re pulling me somewhere. I’m trying to sort them out, sift through them to find the gold, or whatever it is that won’t be burned away. But I’m not having much luck. After work a couple nights ago I just wandered my apartment, talking to Sarah on the phone, feeling aimless but okay because of the voice in my ear. It’s a wonder that the idea of individualism ever caught on. I mean, not to be too close-minded or absolute about it, but to erect this little edifice to myself, and to bow down to my own supremacy and primacy as an individual is a little messed up. Good things have come about through individualism, I admit, and obviously it came at a time when it was (and still can be) very worthwhile, providing a standard for the rights and equality of all people, but it has become a justification to separate and isolate. Often we place ourselves in a position of prominence and privilege, even to the exclusion of any others. I guess the thing I’m trying to get at is that when a person is isolated, truly suspended on his or her own, things begin to crumble. It became pretty apparent to me a couple nights ago, after getting off the phone, that a person wasn’t meant to be alone. Humanity is a relational creature, intended to be joined (in some way) with other people.

I was talking to Alyssa on Saturday about names and identity, specifically this one passage in a Frederick Buechner book, Wishful Thinking. The book is a dictionary of sorts, a “Seeker’s ABC,” and in it Buechner defines his name: “BUECHNER: It is my name. It is pronounced Beekner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me. If somebody forgets it, I feel that it’s I who am forgotten. There’s something about it that embarrasses me in just the same way that there’s something about me that embarrasses me.” My identity is somehow wrapped up in my name, in what I’m called and by what I’m known as. The way I live is the way my name is made known. It seems like an unusual thing that a name should hold so much meaning, even while it’s possible to change it and “go by” something different. But the way we exist in the world depends on our choices, and it really seems that a person’s choices are not meant to be made with only one’s self in mind.

So... I’m reading Proverbs of Ashes right now, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, and it’s getting me thinking about how violent the world can be, and wondering about what a Christian response should be. The immediate feeling is that the Church should stand up and oppose violence and denounce unjust social structures, affirming that which is good and working to better the world in which we live. I think there are very few people who would disagree with this, but there are a great many who do not see that everyday we implicitly endorse violence and injustice. And I’m not talking about supporting businesses that use sweatshops or the unjust trade practices of many nations or genocide wars in far-off countries (although these are problems that deserve our attention). I’m talking about our attitudes towards those who are victims of abuse and neglect and violence — not simply physical, either, but emotional and mental — people that we meet and interact with everyday. To suggest that you don’t know anyone who has been abused or is a victim is to suggest that you have never met anyone. I don’t mean for that to sound confrontational or to imply that everyone is an unequivocal victim of abuse, but rather to draw attention to the limited capacity of every person to know those people that surround him or her. There is no way that we can know what our friends have gone through, what they struggle with, and what their pasts look like. There is no way to know what they feel guilty about or what they have done. There is no way to know a person’s heart.

I say all this because of the way I treat others and the way others treat me. The word “victim” has very negative connotations in our society, often associated with powerlessness and shame, but I use it just the same, attempting to save it, and maybe even save ourselves in the process, somehow. Because all people are victims, in some capacity, whether they admit it or not. We have all been trod upon, taken advantage off, dashed against the rocks, or left for dead. All of it feels very acutely like death. And each of us responds differently, whether it be a quiet, withdrawn individual or an aggressive, angry person or a gentle, humble soul, etc. Sometimes I think about how the people I meet must feel when I go strutting off about something that hurts them, even though I don’t necessarily know that it’s a vulnerable and tender wound. Maybe it’s better to be soft-spoken, to speak few words, and to be gentle and gracious. Maybe it’s better to listen to people than to tell people. I don’t know. But the tendency is to figure people out so that they won’t surprise you and so you won’t be hurt by the things they do. If you have a person figured out, then you will never “go too far” or “say too much” with them, and you will never know that hurt or betrayal that a careless word can cause. The problem is that to live like this is painful, and it causes a much more harmful and self-inflicted type of hurt: isolation.

So, here is the big question for me these days: what saves us? Returning to Proverbs of Ashes, Brock and Parker suggest that to see Jesus’s suffering and death as the instrument of redemption is to valorize an unjust and extremely violent circumstance. They argue that suffering and sacrifice have no place in redemption or in Christianity. The implications of such a doctrine are terrifying and a little disorienting. Effectively, without the atonement of sin, the foundation of evangelical Christianity has been kicked out from beneath our feet, and we are left in freefall. (Admittedly, I am new to the whole realm of liberal theologies, so I won’t do it justice, but I’m still pressing on because there’s something here…) The oppressor uses the idea of self-sacrifice to control and coerce the oppressed. The oppressor says that in order to truly exhibit love and grace the oppressed must sacrifice themselves, to be taken advantage of, to be walked upon, and eventually to be destroyed by their subservience. So the question is raised over what self-sacrifice should look like: Do you tell a woman who is being beaten by her husband that she should suffer gladly? Do the mistakes of a homeless man justify the suffering he now endures? Does a child-molester deserve to be loved? Is there redemption for the murderer? How do you balance justice and self-sacrifice? Does love really suffer all things? How can self-sacrifice exist in a world where the poor and afflicted are pushed farther to the margins and further oppressed? Is there a difference between self-giving love and self-sacrifice? The “skin” that I have covered these ideas with is meant to grate, to reveal the tenderness and ache that exists, the pain and conflicted feelings I have about these ideas. It seems obvious that you shouldn’t tell a woman she must suffer the beatings of her husband gladly, but if you were her, where would you draw the line between showing love and extending grace and exhibiting self-sacrifice to your husband, and actually caring for yourself in simple self-preservation? I don’t mean to say that it’s greedy or self-centered to consider oneself as holy and worthy of love — rather, it seems to be good common sense that’s hardly ever preached. But where is the line between self-sacrifice and common sense? Do you give people a second chance if they hurt you? Do you forgive seven times seventy times? Or do you recoil, preserving your self and your dignity and your life? Or is there some way to forgive and withhold your inner self at the same time? Is that a Christian thing to do? Or should you just keep giving of yourself, regardless of pain or injury?

And now, a very difficult question: If I take Brock & Parker’s argument at face value, and just accept that Christianity based on an oppressed and violent suffering only condones more violence, then I wonder why Jesus did have to die? Of course I know the standard response that Jesus came to die for my sins so that I could be reconciled to God forever and ever. But if this is true, if we are finally able to (re)gain our proper place in the universe, why are we still such assholes? We were made to be in relationship, but when we are, we just end up hurting one another. It seems that only by the grace of God that anything we do is redeemable. And like the D.H. Lawrence quote, all I can do is hold myself up, but the big wind is blowing, and I don’t know where I’m going...