Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Life, Mystery, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Yesterday, I received a text from a friend that said, “Friends please pray for me today. My job is sucking the life out of me, and I’m looking for other jobs, but today I’m just really discouraged.” After work I met another friend, who loves her job, makes lots of money, but whose source of angst was the house they could not get, and the money they do not have.  On the train ride home, there was a man who asked, “won’t you please spare something, it’s hard to breathe, see, and I just … and then … and you just don’t know.” He wore an oxygen mask that was attached to nothing.  And ever since, this thing, it has grabbed me, and it won’t let me go.

In all the ways I don’t know,
yes I do. I do know. We are all hungry for something.

When I started writing this post, it was hard to find words. Instead of being concise and moving, it was abstract and rang false. 
I lost the truth of what I’d experienced so briefly. The cadence was off; it didn’t really say anything. 

So I’m trying again.

Really, I think that’s the root of this. The best we can do is look back over our shoulders to make any sense of life. I feel so often that I’m groping in the dark, finding my way barely. Sometimes I just feel lost. We look back over our shoulders and wonder if we're in the right place. You think you’d be able to recognize where you're headed, but mostly, none of us really know what we're doing.  That's what took six pages to try to say initially, but never did.  So often, we're guided by our hunger. 
We do the very best we can to find our way in this world, but mostly, we’re barely making it through the fog. 

So that’s what this is about. Hunger. And making our way through this world. We are born wrestling. We want. But, no matter how little or how much we have, it is not enough to satisfy our number of requirements for happiness. 

 Want is bred into our nature. We eat. In a few hours we eat again. We sleep. Tomorrow we need to sleep again.  Men look at women, women read Fifty Shades of Grey, and we all burn inwardly with desire for what we do not have.  We were made to burn for something. In all the ways it nourishes and destroys us, we need to want. This desire grows babies, drives commerce, and gives us purpose. And yet, we become slaves to that insatiable hole in the same breath.  And when we reach the end of wanting, it is not that we are satisfied, it is that we are dissatisfied with what we have satisfied ourselves with. 
Life, with all its spoils, is not enough. It is this Catch-22 with all things. Mothers with children. Husbands with wives, and wives with husbands. People with people. People with jobs. People with things. People with _________. We both need to need them, yet they can consume us.

As just a leg of this amoeba, a former professor, Walter Benn Michaels pointed out that our thirst for money and what it can give "grants power, but as a thing that you want and don't have ... “[Money] is never simply a means of getting what you want, it is itself the thing you want, indeed, it is itself your want." We want to own our desire.  I think this goes for any pursuit sexually, personally, etc. A recent article in the NY Times revealed that money (or ‘owning our own desire’) has a point of diminishing return. Having everything always at our disposal makes nothing exciting or ‘worth’ wanting. Knowing that you can have it all at any time greatly decreases any object’s attractiveness.

We all know this. We know that our jobs, money, our spouses, children, food, clothes, cars, whatever, never will satisfy.  That no matter what we are pouring ourselves into, there is an insatiable hole. I once said I feared being poured out in a relationship. That I would pour out, and not be filled back. But the more I think about it, we are all, always, pouring ourselves out, pearls before swine. And never do we stop desiring for the swine to delight us, looking for the pig that will fill us back up.

If we ever throw enough of our life into that empty pit,
we discover, like Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, that even with every artistic, sexual, financial and personal freedom easily available, our desires are frustrated, not in their want, but in their fulfillment. The Awakening ends with Edna swimming out into the ocean having received everything she has ever wanted, yet dissatisfied.  The fulfillment of every desire eventually killing that desire. We are made to burn for something, and Edna discovers that now, utterly fulfilled, what she really desires, in her deepest part, has no name.  She burns for nothing and everything at the same time.  She burns for something without form.

I began thinking about this anew when I watched Higher Ground last weekend.  Vera Farmiga’s character, Corinne, is unfulfilled in so many ways. We watch her lifelong struggle with Faith. With wrestling something nameless. And wrestling with disappointment. And wanting to not wrestle.

So what is it that we’re hungry for?

Take this scene from the movie at the very end:

“He walks with me and he talks with me and He tells me I am his own.” What more could anyone want? Taking a stroll with God in the Garden.  Having a chat with the Creator of the universe. Asking questions and getting answers. You couldn’t be any safer, any more secure. No higher place. No safer ground.
When I was a little girl, my pastor told me that Jesus was knocking at the door of my heart, so I listened real hard and I thought I heard Him. I raised my hand and told everyone Jesus was standing there and he wanted me. Tap, tap, tap, Pastor said. So I invited Him in. Welcome I said and gave all my heart outright. And I’m telling you this morning, I’m telling you that I’m still waiting for Him to make Himself at home. I call. And I call. And there have been times I know He answered, times I was sure he was there, but other times, I’ve got the porch light on, and He doesn’t come. I feel like I live in an empty place. I’ve told God I’m not letting go until he blesses me. But I’m wrestling something nameless, without form and void. I just want it to be solid so bad, you know?

I need all of this to be real. And I don’t always know how to make it real. So forgive me. I admire your faith, I do.”

Corinne's struggle is so human. In the end of The Awakening, at the death of every other desire, Edna wishes for the same thing.  She wishes for “the unlimited in which to lose herself.” Benn Michaels points out, “nobody in [The Awakening ] can embody the infinite". Edna desires what she cannot be or have. She wants the opposite: to find “the unlimited” (Barbara Claire Freeman, in The Feminine Sublime). Later, Freeman points out that no one and no thing can be this 'unlimited' for Edna because no one can sustain and fulfill her desire with their presence. She can only continue burning for whatever is missing if it is not there.

I think we transpose our understanding of human relationships onto God. No man, no woman can ever possibly infinitely satisfy. They cannot both sustain us in our desire and satisfy us with their presence.
Yet, this is what frustrates Corinne in Higher Ground… that the only being who can embody the infinite, who can both sustain and fulfill her desire at the same time… He is the being whom she cannot find easily. She waits for Him ‘to make Himself at home’. This is whom she wrestles without a form.

Maybe it’s my naivety, but I think the world explodes into an increasingly more difficult puzzle as we grow older for our benefit. "Without fog," Monet said, "London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth."  His ‘Houses of Parliament’ paintings are not of the Parliament buildings, or London, but are of the fog…that mysterious darkness that "gives London it’s breadth."

Our puzzle pieces get smaller, more jagged, and harder to lay as we experience the breadth of this world. We’re all jamming them together, hoping that at the end, this kaleidoscope of experiences will resolve into something. Just something. Something that we can look back over our shoulders at and say, “Ah, yes. There it is. That’s how. That’s why.”

I think this wrestling makes our lives more piquant.
  Fog gives us just enough information to begin making decisions but no way to judge the accuracy of that information, which so often ends up being wrong. Darkness, mystery, desire, vagueness, the pain we suffer, all demand answers.  We wrestle. If it were easy to hit the center of the bulls-eye, no one would aim.  Without the fog, life would be a sprint to the end.   The groping around increases our thirst for truth, for resolution, and our satisfaction when we find it. Without struggle, there would be nothing to desire, since desire is an unmet want. Without desire, there would be no flavor. There would be no sex. There would be no five star. There would be no children. There would be no art, or math, or science. There would be nothing.

Without desire, without struggle, there would be no concept of freedom. No epiphany. No concept of peace, or fulfillment. No thirst for God, The Fullfiller. We are made wanting.
No matter how maddening our experience like Corinne in Higher Ground, or how sad like Edna in The Awakening,  it’s the waiting at home with the porch light on; it’s the wrestling with that thing we can’t name, that desire we cannot fulfill: it's our want and our needs that reveals our humanity.  And without knowing our humanity, in all its wants, we cannot know God, in all His wholeness. His holiness.


<The last 'clever' post: Look at My Honesty

>The next
'clever' post: Storytelling: When I take out the trash

The isten Mrdjanov


  1. Higher Ground: I know. I keep mulling that movie all around in my head too. As simplistic as this sounds... I concluded that we experience as much of God as we want. Just as Corinne experienced as much intimacy with her husband a she would allow: She wanted more,craved more... But, she turned her head whenever he'd kissed her. I think we want and crave, but a true intimacy frightens us. We might lose ourselves- our identity; we become vulnerable. And, so, while we leave our porch lights on and complain about our emptiness... We turn our heads...

    1. I agree with being afraid of true intimacy, but I'm not sure I agree about why she turned her head. I think she turned her head because she was tired of being disappointed. I think it's the same reason she stood in the door at the very end of the movie. Do you think the movie portrayed her as having a lack of earnestness?

  2. I think she let her expectations get in the way of just letting go, both physically and spiritually. She envied the intimacy of Luke & his wife (and others). But, her disappointment with her husband got in the way of her giving herself to h
    im. Corinne also envied the intimacy Nikka had with God. But, when God took much of Nikka away, I think Corinne's ability to trust God was enveloped in the fog you spoke of earlier. And so, she chose to withhold herself from God too. I say this, because I find that in my own life, my expectations end up limiting my happiness. They limit the bigness of God and, everything starts to taste like Carob. ;)

  3. I was going to offer some pithy comment about urban-angst: which while true, does nothing to ameliorate the hunger you very eloquently described. So instead, I'll try to give you my take.

    The human condition is to reach for things just beyond our grasp, and to struggle and groan in the agony of our obsessions. We're hard-wired for it. God does not often come to us in the manner of our choosing, but come he does. We must meet him on his own terms-- not as the satisfaction of our longing, but as he is. Beautiful. Terrible. Holy. The fulfillment of the mystery of the ages: Christ in us, the hope of glory.

    I would often prefer "Christ beside me, the satisfaction of my longing", but the essence of Christianity is that I must decrease that he might increase. In exchange, I can have the presence of the Godhead in my spirit. I don't get to choose how I encounter the divine, because he is God and I am not.

    We all "wrestle something nameless, without form and void", and I too "just want it to be solid so bad, you know?", but this is the essence of faith to me: to be led into battle-- scared, confused, weak, and ill-prepared-- not alone in the fog of war, but in a place where I see only through a dark glass darkly. It is quite often not what I would choose, but my choice means nothing-- because war is upon us whether we would choose it or not.

    We were born to struggle, and to fight. We can struggle with God or beside him, but struggle we will. One way leads to frustration, the other to glory.

  4. Dad- I was angsty before I lived in urbania.
    Secondly, well put. That desire to stuff God into our own version of what we think we want or need trickles into every human relationship too. We are selfish all the way down to how we want to be loved. That being said, I think God has grace on us sometimes (often!), meeting us where we are so we don't starve or thirst to death out in our man-made desert.

  5. I love this conversation. Thank you Galat family for sharing your wisdom and encouragement here. I certainly thirst for it. And thanks again, Kristen for yes, truly eloquently "saying" it - this stuff we wrestle with - out loud. This is a prime reason for why this blog exists.


Yes! Thanks for the love!

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