If boredom in high school is a sign of readiness for college, I was ready for college at a young age … South Texas left me restless for more. Or should I say, I left South Texas, restless. And more than a little spoiled. (Spoiled brats — aka privileged kids of hard-working parents — take college so for granted that they argue with their parents about what they’ll do once they get there.)
I told my mom I was going to major in journalism, and not pre-law, because writing was what I loved to do, and I was sure I’d find a way to make a living. “But if you’re a lawyer, you’ll always have a living, and you can write in your free time.”
“Nope. You told me to do what I love, and that then I’d always love what I was doing.” Since she was doing what she loved, it was hard for her to argue.
By the time I graduated from college, I was editing a cluster of magazines, and had numerous publications to my name. Restless and making very little money, I moved on to another kind of writing in a business setting. Over the next fifteen years, I wrote thousands of pages, traveled tens of thousands of miles, and got to the point of making over a hundred thousand dollars a year.
Restless, I quit to hang out with the kids I’d had, try to “save” the marriage I was in, and figure out what to do with the Jesus nibbling around the edges of my soul. I ended up writing three books about parenting the kids I was hanging out with, while I was in therapy for the marriage, and getting deeper and deeper in with the Jesus stuff. I’d found a church, and at that church we were talking about starting a new church, an anti-racist church, an idea I loved almost as much as Jesus.
Restless, I went to seminary, thinking I could learn enough answers to be satisfied that I knew how to do what I felt I was being called to do. I grew closer and closer to God, which oddly brought me closer and closer to myself, until I figured out it was a gay self I was getting to know. The endings and beginnings this brought about were both saddening and satisfying. As a means of taking my life and its puzzles in a different direction, I took my biggest questions into a Ph.D. program and emerged with a big answer, in the form of a dissertation. And that left me … restless.
The restlessness had abated for a while … the intellectual stimulation was profound; I was getting to know my self in altogether new and integrated ways; and I fell in love while in that Ph.D. program. I am happy to have experienced the deep healing and joy that the right love brings, through words and touch, laughter and tears, work and prayer and life. Living in the grace of deeper joys and higher intimacies than I could have imagined, I now believe that if it is humanly possible to be satisfied, I would be.
I have what I sought for so long: to be an integrated self, body/mind/soul, knowing myself to be beloved of God, feeling that love drench me through and through, in my love relationship, in my work and worship, in the unspeakably beautiful world around me.
Why then this restlessness that never entirely lets go? That can only be temporarily satisfied?
I used to think it was the restlessness that was temporary, if not aberrant.
Six or seven years ago, I discovered Elizabeth O’Connor’s work, much of it written while she was part of Church of the Savior. In Cry Pain, Cry Hope, she wrote about restlessness, in the form of a holy discontent:
Every single one of us has a “good work” to do in life. This good work not only accomplishes something needed in the world, but completes something in us. When it is finished a new work emerges that will help us to make green a desert place, as well as to scale another mountain in ourselves. The work we do in the world, when it is true vocation, always corresponds in some mysterious way to the work that goes on within us. It is a “green work” and a “greening work,” to use the insightful words of Hildegard of Bingen.* Matthew Fox, who has given us wonderful new books on her writings and paintings, states that Hildegard refers to God’s green power as wetness. We are all to stay “wet and moist, like God.” The opposite is too terrible — to become “shrivelled and wilted.”
With each new stage of life a new work emerges in us. In all likelihood it was there from the beginning, waiting to be claimed, waiting for the development of our personalities and of our gifts. We are probably intended to embark upon a new work, or a new dimension of an old work, every seven years. This suggests the Jubilee cycle which incorporated the understanding that the seventh year, like the seventh day, marked the completion of a work, and that even the spent land would need a period of rest before being able to yield new fruits. Vocation is always deeply related to those changes that take place in us on our journey toward the freedom to be our true selves, God’s word and work in the universe.
The transition stage — the time between works — is often signaled by growing feelings of discontent. The work we have been doing ceases to absorb us in the same way. Finally it seems impossible to endure until the weekend, or vacation, or retirement. The period is one of anxiety, sometimes experienced as boredom. One reaches toward the new without knowing what the new is. The transition stage is a difficult period because the old has lost its meaning, the new has not yet loomed into sight, and one has serious doubts that it will come at all. These thoughts cause varying degrees of unrest and, in the extreme, despair. There is nothing to do but wait, and waiting is something few of us do well. We find ourselves, as it were, in exile. Only when looking back do we see that the pain was part of the design, seeking to pull us into the new. Pain kept us open in our waiting — asking, listening, looking, willing to make that journey into self — a journey few of us undertake with any seriousness until compelled by our suffering.
* Hildegard of Bingen, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen with commentary by Matthew Fox (Sante Fe: Bear & Co. Inc., 1985).
While O’Connor’s perspective still speaks to me, I am coming to think that the restlessness I feel is not so much indicative of a stage as it is reflective of reality. I recall a line Rumi wrote in his poem, “Love Dogs” (as translated by Coleman Barks):
“This longing you express is the return message.”
The very wise Celtic philosopher/poet John O’Donohue knew the nature of this longing-infused life, of what it meant to live as a love dog. He wrote of longing’s persistence and pervasiveness in his book, Eternal Echoes:
[There is] a longing that you will never be able to clearly decipher, though it will never cease to call you. At times, it will bring you to tears; at other times, it will set your heart wild. No person you meet will ever quell it. You can be at one with the love of your life, give all of your heart, and it will still continue to call you. In quiet moments in your love, even at moments of intimacy that feel like an absolute homecoming, a whisper of this longing will often startle you. It may prod you into unease and make you question your self and your ability to love and to open yourself to love. Even when you achieve something that you have worked for over the years, the voice of this longing will often surface and qualify your achievement. When you listen to its whisper, you will realize that it is more than a sense of anti-climax. Even when everything comes together and you have what you want, this unwelcome voice will not be stifled.
What voice is this? … The voice comes from your soul. It is the voice of the eternal longing within you, and it confirms you as a relentless pilgrim on the earth.
These are the words that ring true for me. In the days of corporate achievement and annual compensation raise letters … in the nights when my lover has given me to know what it is to be treasured … in the moments when I have waded in the sacred rivers of preaching and prayer … always there has been a quiet hollow at the heart. A stillness. An unquenchable restlessness.
I used to think this meant there was something wrong with me, with my ability to love and be loved, to work and be satisfied, to worship and be filled. Now, on the threshold of new works, I am pausing to wonder, what does it mean that the longing is relentless? At the very least, I have to reconsider what it is that I am embarking upon.
How it is that we are to live, as relentless pilgrims on the earth, always journeying, always seeking? How do we receive the blessings of the journey, when the destination is not what we thought? Not even imaginable, much less achievable? The “already and not yet” of the basileia of God is apparently lifelong.
I need traveler’s ethics. How to Live as a Love Dog.
A lot of what John the Baptizer and Jesus had to say is helpful. They knew something about life on the road.
More specifically, right now I need to remember that this new work will not satisfy all of the longing I feel. Perhaps it would help to think of the longing as the feeling of being alive. Or, the feeling of being. So, I should not load up the new work with unreasonable expectations. These people I will meet and work with did not ask to be burdened with my life-load of desire. We have not yet agreed what part of our longings we will attempt to fulfill together.
When I am blessed to feel at home, I would do well to remember when I was a stranger, and extend to another the welcome that I was given. When I am a stranger, I can respect the inhabitants I meet. I can try to understand, before trying to be understood. I can listen more, and longer.
If I have a little, I can share. If I have a lot, I can share more. The traveling will be easier for us all.
I can use the fuel I have gathered to build us a fire: for warmth, for a beacon, for a gathering place.
I can remember that the ability to feel this longing is a privilege, and a gift: the manna falls for those who are walking, those who are drawn forward by life, into life, unable to resist the lure in the column of bright cloud, the pillar of dark fire.
The peregrinaje I’ve dreamed of continues; I am its relentless pilgrim.