I am old enough to have known another time. Things were different when I was little. Many of life’s pleasures weren’t available and people made due, celebrating what there was to celebrate and not over-expecting. Back then, few expected or demanded the whole pie. Heaven was seen as something for later. My parents and their generation lived a simple spiritual philosophy: This life is but a short time of waiting, “mourning and weeping in a vale of tears!” It is not so important to be happy. Today there are sneers about their tears. But that sombre philosophy of theirs got them through life with their faith and loves intact and, ironically, probably equipped them with a greater capacity for enjoyment and happiness than we possess today. There is today too little talk, in our churches and in the world, about the “vale of tears” and the incompleteness of our present lives.
Spiritualities of the resurrection and psychologies of self-actualization, whatever their other strengths, no longer give us permission to be in pain, to be un whole, ill, unattractive, aged, unfulfilled or even just alone on a Friday night. The idea is all too present that we can only be happy if we somehow fulfil every hunger within us, if our lives are completely whole, consummated and we are never alone on a Friday night. Unless every pleasure that we yearn for can be tasted, we cannot be happy. Because of this we over expect. We stand before life and love in a greedy posture and with unrealistic expectations, demanding the resolution of all our eros and tension. However, life, in this world, can never give us that. We are pilgrims on earth, exiles journeying towards home. The world is passing away. We have God’s word for it. And we need God’s word for it! Too much in our experience today militates against the fact that here in this life all symphonies remain unfinished. Somehow, we have come to believe that a final solution for the burning tensions within us lies within our present grasp. I am not sure who or what gives us this idea.
Maybe it is the movie and television industries with their leading men and leading ladies who are presented to us as already redeemed, persons who are gorgeous, immersed in love and meaning, and who have the wherewithal within their grasp to taste whatever life has to offer. But something has led us to the belief that we need not put up with tension and frustration and that there are persons in this life who are already enjoying a redeemed life. That belief, however unconscious and unexpressed, lies at the root of much of our restlessness and unhappiness today. None of us are whole, not even our gorgeous leading men and ladies. Yet because we believe that somehow, we can or should be whole, we go through life denigrating what chances we have for rest and happiness.
A simple example serves to illustrate: In our culture we suffer from what might be termed “Friday Night Syndrome.” Few people can stay home quietly and rest on a Friday night. Why? Is it because we are not tired and ideally could not appreciate a nice quiet time. No! We cannot stay home quietly on Friday night because inside of us moves a restless demon that assures us that everyone in the whole world is doing something exciting on Friday night. Once that voice is heard, then our homes, our families and our commitments begin to look unexciting. Peace and restfulness slip away, and we are caught up in an insatiable restlessness. This example illustrates the basic principle: So much of our unhappiness comes from comparing our lives, our friendships, our loves, our commitments, our duties, our bodies and our sexuality to some idealized and non-Christian vision of things which falsely assures us that there is a heaven on earth. When that happens, and it does, our tensions begin to drive us mad, in this case, to a cancerous restlessness.
In a culture (and, at times, in a church) that tells us that no happiness is possible unless every ache and restlessness inside of us is fulfilled, how hard it is to be happy. How tragic it is to be alone! How tragic it is to be unmarried! How tragic it is to be married, but not completely fulfilled romantically and sexually! How tragic it is not to be good-looking! How tragic it is to be unhealthy, aged, handicapped! How tragic it is to be caught up in duties and commitments, small children and diapers and routine, which limit our freedom and relationships! How tragic it is to be poor! How tragic it is to go through life and not be able to taste every pleasure on earth! It almost isn’t worth living! There is wisdom and, yes, even comfort, in the old “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears” philosophy. Sometimes that expression was abused, and people forgot that the Creator did not just make us for life after death…He did also intend some life after birth! But those who lived that philosophy generally did not attempt to milk life for more than it could give them. Those who lived that philosophy were a lot less restless and greedy for experience than we are today. They could much more restfully enjoy God’s great gifts – life, love, youth, health, friendship and sexuality – even as they are limitedly given in this life. Those who lived that philosophy were, I am sure, much more restful on Friday nights!