There is something to be said for the power of experience. Since I am not an existentialist, I tend to shy away from the influence of emotion on the life I live. Most people do this to some extent, or at least do this in part. We try to live fully embracing the pleasant passions and swearing off the displeasing experiences with the loftiest reasoning.
And yet (and yet!) it has become clear to me lately that this is a dangerous risk. The weight of many pleasures evaporate as repetition piles on. Suppose you ate a magnificent pasta. You may have transcended in the moment, marveled at the excellent spices and the richness of the sauce. Then you eat that same dish every night and become quickly orphaned by that initial wonder. Such a small example serves to illustrate my point; this happens everywhere, even the most basic pleasures are subject to devaluation.
How odd and counter-intuitive it is, that what pleases in one moment becomes incapable of pleasing the next. The relationship this concern bears to addiction should be apparent. To disown pain and seek pleasure forever does not provide fulfillment; it gives occasional glimpses of happiness, and leaves within the spirit no trace of joy. In seeking immediate comfort, I have found lethargy and stagnation. It is one thing to say that I am happy in this moment, and another entirely to say I am fulfilled.
I think that’s because fulfillment denotes a purpose. Much of the world would insist that purpose is the finding of pleasure, and that this selfishness is what passes life down through history and so forth. However, I have known no parents who would claim that raising a family is an experience of endless pleasure. It’s hard work, it’s frustrating, and it can be fraught with discomfort, even agony. But the natural inclination remains family life.
People too often mix up pleasure with joy, comfort with fulfillment, desire with purpose. As a Christian, I know purpose is not that which I seek, but that for which I was made, and so seeking to live up to purpose may at times be displeasing, discomforting, and wholly undesirable.
Maybe the oddest way that I know God exists is this: in those moments when all three of those negatives are weights around my neck, I can be fulfilled and find glints of joy. There simply is no other way to explain this; what may be displeasing can be welcomed, what may be uncomfortable can be peaceful, what may be desired not at all can be enough.
The past few years in particular have been a slow revolution in my own life. In that many experiences can be unpleasant, it seemed only logical to reduce the number of experiences I have. (There’s also a hint of ‘writer’s psychology’ in that decision.) Since then, it has become painfully clear how foolish such an approach is. In emptying myself of the displeasing, I was surprised to find almost nothing left behind. All material pleasure is indeed fleeting. And on the other side of the coin, joy will always involve that which you would never have thought joyful, because it isn’t your purpose that joy actuates. It is the purpose of Another, a Wholly Other, as A.W. Tozer wrote.
Francis Thompson was an English poet in the late 19th century, best known for his Hound of Heaven. I don’t know a lot about him, and I would like to know more. I do know that he was homeless, living under a bridge in London for a time as he wrote. Ravi Zacharias quoted one of his poems in his talk “What Does It Mean To Be Human?” The poem is powerful, especially in context of the talk.
In No Strange Land
by Francis Thompson
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air–
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!–
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places–
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry–and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry–clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!
To my mind, and my eyes having never seen the Thames or Genesareth, these may seem like distant abstract ideas, especially when taken in poetic format. But these are not abstract concepts! These are real, existential experiences of joy found by a man whose circumstance seemed to constantly deny the possibility of satisfaction, of fulfillment! Joy in the moment of pain! Joy shining out among tears! Overwhelming awe at the world around us, in all of its infinitely-complex simplicity. Throughout the ceaseless hunt for distraction on the surface, we ought never to forget that the primary focus should pierce the deepest core. Diversion is like a shooting star, gone without meaning. Purpose is where fulfillment can be found, and without it, everything is reduced to inexplicable curiosity, all things eventually exhausted of any value. So, to find a true and lasting peacefulness, discover why you were made.