“A symptom suffers most when it doesn’t knows where it belongs.”
James Hillman wrote that and I learned what it means when I was 17 years old. At that tender age, I entered a religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Like everyone that age, I was pretty restless, overfull with desire, and that was soon compounded by the isolation I experienced during the early years of seminary formation. I remember well my first year of training, a year called novitiate. There were eighteen of us, mostly under the age of twenty, in a building by ourselves, across a lake from a small rural village (the only outside life), cut off from the normal activities of people our age and cut off from contact with women.
We were understandably restless, jumping out of our skins, but that was never talked about, never admitted. We were preparing to take religious vows, to give our lives to God and the church, and it wouldn’t have been right to admit that certain parts of us weren’t onside and that there was more than a little lonely casting of our eyes across the lake, jealously fantasizing about what we were missing out on.
We lived in that restlessness; but for me, a wonderfully freeing thing happened half-way through that year. My restlessness didn’t go away but something helped put it into perspective. Somebody named it for me. An old priest visited us one day, took one look at us and said: “You’re restless, aren’t you?” We were too pious to admit it. “Good!” he continued, “You should be jumping out of your skin! It isn’t natural for young people to be cut off like this, but don’t worry about it. It can do you good. Being restless doesn’t mean you can’t be good priests!”
His simple, honest naming of what we were feeling introduced us to ourselves. We were still restless, but now we felt better, normal, and healthy again. A symptom suffers less when it knows where it belongs.
All of us need to have our restlessness named for us. We all feel like jumping out of our skin at times. But, as this old priest said, we should feel that way. It’s normal, a sign of emotional health. It’s normal to sometimes cast our eyes jealously across the waters, to feel that we are missing out on life, and to have that nagging feeling that our lives are too small for us.
This experience has many faces. Sometimes it shows itself as a restlessness that besets us on a Friday night when it seems everyone in the world is doing something exciting except ourselves. Other times we feel it as dissatisfaction with everything in front of us because we’re obsessed with a relationship that isn’t really ours to have. Most deeply though we feel it when the limits of life break through to us. How does this happen?
We come into this world with insatiable desires, huge talents, boundless energy, and grandiose dreams. Like a god or goddess, we’d like to drink up the planet, taste every wine, and know every experience; but, in all this desire and potential, we, all of us, eventually find ourselves in a very limited, circumscribed place and situation. At some point reality sets in, the daydreams are over, and we find ourselves in one particular city, in one particular job, with one particular partner, with one particular family, with one particular set of friends, and with one very concrete set of domestic commitments and duties. All of our potential, all of our desire, all of our talent, all of our ambition, have come down to this – this time, this place, this city, this job, this partner, this family, these duties, this little space in history, this very circumscribed life which, good though it is, cannot but fall short of our expectations.
As Thoreau once said, as a young person we dream of building a bridge to the moon and sometime in mid-life we pick up the materials we’ve gathered and build a woodshed.
And it’s not easy to be satisfied with a woodshed. And so the temptation is to do violence to our loved ones and our commitments by being unfairly dissatisfied with them. We do this whenever we say, however subtle and unspoken this might be: “All that I might have been … and I’m stuck with just this!”
We need some old sage, some magus, man or woman, to name this for us, as the old priest named it for me when I was seventeen: “You feel restless! Good! You’re supposed to feel that way! It doesn’t mean you’re life and situation aren’t good!”
Karl Rahner once named it this way: There can be a real danger in fantasizing too much about tangible happiness. There is no other happiness in this world outside of tranquilly accepting that here all symphonies remain unfinished and that part of the foundation of love is solitude and self-denial. We must learn how to weep in peace.