At a writer’s conference years ago, I heard an experienced and widely-published author of several books say to a chapel full of straining, struggling writers, “Friends, being published will not fulfill you.”
Sitting stiffy, as one does in a hard-wooden pew, I thought, “Easy for you to say.” And it was easy for him to say, but I still longed for the opportunity, along with everyone else in the room I assume, to learn that lesson for myself, thank you very much.
I am a long-time longer. I am quick to long and slow to learn.
I long for what I do not yet have, and likely never will. I long forward for the better times that surely lie ahead and I long back for what has already slipped past. Just the other day my husband and I collapsed on our bed for our ritualistic Friday afternoon nap, when Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” came on. Instantly, I was back in a pub in Halifax, young and courageous and drinking cheap beer with this same man beside me, now silver-haired with fewer days in front than behind us, and lying here napping. I longed to go back. This, though, is a kind of loving longing that lasts for only a moment and may make us sad, and then glad. It is so normal and every day, and maybe even lovely.
But there is another kind of longing that does not lead to gratitude, or a nap-cuddle. And that is the longing I also know so well. The kind of longing that makes me mindful of all I do not have, instead of all I do; it clings stubbornly to time gone, and not time right now, this very moment, and time yet to come, beautiful and hopeful in its not-yet-arrived-ness. It makes me pay attention to the scarcity and not to all of this abundance, everywhere I look when my eyes are open and grateful.
This discontent quietly emerged sometime between riding my bicycle around the neighbourhood until the streetlights came on and becoming a working adult who noticed all the things the world had to offer that I had not yet received, goodies mostly. Scrolling through Instagram, I wonder why I don’t have a small yacht, like she does. I could do so much good with a yacht. And why are everyone’s rooms so sparkly? There are diamonds in the air everywhere but here, where dust drifts lazily past our noses.
You cannot speak of longing without speaking of envy. We long for what we envy. We envy what we long. We want what others have, which we also deserve. We always think, like my author friend said, that the next thing will be the best thing and maybe the last thing we will ever really truly need and then we will be happy. It never is and we never are, of course.
And the world approves of our longing. It waters it in its pot and we let it.
I’ve always thought that old idea of a God-shaped hole within us that only Jesus can fill was lame-o. It embarrassed me, at least the way I first heard it at some dopey talk where I felt too cool for school, and where I am certain, decades later, that I was not really that cool at all.
I imagined cartoon Jesus stepping into an internal and clearly-carved out God-cavity, and it seemed too simplistic, and silly. Too easy a solution for all that ails us. How could our yearning be that fully filled by any one Love?
And yet I can say to you today that I have glimpsed this, and felt it. All of my longing and wanting and striving has taught me that this is a thing. I looked it up, by the way, and it sounds much more sophisticated how Blaise Pascal wrote it in Pensées in 1662, as an “infinite abyss,” that “can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Yes, this does speak with sense.
My faith has helped me with my longing. It has smoothed the edges down, eventually, mercifully. But this is a long, slow journey. You don’t become a Christian and stop being a jerk overnight, at least not for me and my companions. But faith has stopped me from drifting off into infinite longing like a helium balloon that slips away, and for that second in the parking lot you can hardly believe it has happened.
Faith has redeemed my longing by turning it into a mirror in which I can see my real heart, even when it is tiny and shriveled and wanting so much, so often. “The heart is the fulcrum of your most fundamental longings, a visceral, subconscious orientation to the world,” writes James K.A. Smith in his helpful, hopeful book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Everyone I know quotes from this book, and so I finally read it to help me understand my longing, and I loved it too.
So, we hand over our hearts, even if we do it kicking and screaming. Our hearts are at the center of our wanting, as Smith says, and our wanting is at the center of our hearts and when we offer up those hearts, willfully, mindfully, habitually and sacrificially, we start to heal. This is our medicine.
“Lift up your hearts,” says one of the priests at my church, every single Sunday, in our old, dusty building. “We lift them to the Lord,” we say back, every single Sunday, no matter what. It’s what we do.
And then we file up and we kneel down as equally broken, somewhat confessed, mildly confused, fully forgiven people, and we receive communion and try again the coming week, now maybe an inch closer to loving God most.
Here is an example. Before I met my husband, I had never heard of tithing – that ancient practice of giving at least 10 per cent of your income to the church, and to God. I hated the very thought of it. It made me queasy, and cringe. I panicked. That feeling did not go instantly away as I crept forward in my faith. I wish it had, but it did not. But we have tithed anyway, through all these years, because of obedience, and habit, and will, and surrender.
I have obeyed, there is not another word for it. For the record, I have rarely been cheerful about it. I have had to learn, and to see with my own eyes, that we can give so much away (and really, not that much when you do the math), and we can still survive and sometimes thrive, and I can still buy magical age-defying serum for my skin, on sale. Our beer is still cheap.
It is true that God may love a cheerful giver (as the Bible says), but he is also quite fond of the stingy, scared ones (and that’s what I say).
This release of something for which I long – money, security, copper-bottomed pots and pans – has made me long for those very things less. The solution is always in the problem, the answer is in the question. Do you want to stop hating someone? Pray for them. Being persecuted? Bless them. Longing for money? Give more of it away. This is not about giving to get, it is about giving to heal, a wonderful and unexpected bonus to doing something you did not really want to do, to which you were not naturally bent.
Your heart will heal, eventually, and your longing will too. We will long for less of that, and more of God alone, and this is such a relief.
The other thing I do about the thirst of my discontent, is remind myself and God that I trust him and I thank him. I say those things out loud, on purpose, and when I am alone so people don’t think I am nuts.
“I trust you,” I say, and by saying it I remember that I do and at the same time I pledge that I will.
“Thank you,” I say, and I remember I am grateful and I decide to be again, right there and then. My heart shifts. My longing lightens.
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Convivium contributor Karen Stiller finds inspiration in writers who have shown courage writing their faith into the public square, providing opportunities for writing about what is important to the faithful.