“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
Karl Rahner wrote those words and not to understand them is to risk letting restlessness become a cancer in our lives.
What does it mean to be tormented by the insufficiency of everything attainable? How are we tortured by what we cannot have? We all experience this daily. In fact, for all but a few privileged, peaceful times, this torment is like an undertow to everything we experience: Beauty makes us restless when it should give us peace, the love we experience with our spouse does not fulfil our longings, the relationships we have within our families seem too petty and domestic to be fulfilling, our job is hopelessly inadequate to the dreams we have for our ourselves, the place we live seems boring and lifeless in comparison to other places, and we are too restless to sit peacefully at our own tables, sleep peacefully in our own beds, and be at ease within our own skins. We are tormented by the insufficiency of everything attainable when our lives are too small for us and we live them in such a way that we are always waiting, waiting for something or somebody to come along and change things so that our real lives, as we imagine them, might begin.
I remember a story a man once shared with me on a retreat. He was 45 years old, had a good marriage, was the father of 3 healthy children, had a secure, if unexciting job, and lived in a peaceful, if equally unexciting, neighbourhood. Yet, to use his words, he was fully inside of his own life. This was his confession:
“For most of my life, and especially for the past 20 years, I have been too restless to really live my own life. I have never really accepted what I am – a 45 year-old man, working in a grocery store in a small town, married to a good, if unexciting woman, aware that my marriage will never fulfil my deep sexual yearnings, and aware that, despite all my daydreaming and the autographs of famous people that I have been collecting, I am not going any where, I will never fulfil my dreams, I will only be here, as I am now, in this small town, in this particular marriage, with these people, in this body, for the rest of my life. I will only grow fatter, balder, and physically less healthy and attractive. But what is sad in all of this is that, from every indication, I should be having a good life. I am lucky really. I am healthy, loved, secure, in a good marriage, living in a country of peace and plenty. Yet, inside of myself I am so restless that I never enjoy my own life and my wife and my kids and my job and the place that I live at. I am always at some other place inside of myself, too restless to really be where I am at, too restless to live in my own house, too restless to be really inside of my own skin.”
That is what the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable feels like in actual life. But Rahner’s insight is more than merely diagnostic, it is prescriptive too. It points out how we move beyond that torment, beyond the cancer of restlessness. How? By beginning to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.
The reason why we are tormented is not, first of all, because we are over-sexed, hopelessly neurotic, and ungrateful persons who are too greedy to be satisfied with this life. No. The first, and deep reason, is that we are congenitally over-charged and over-built for this earth, infinite spirits living in a finite situation, hearts made for union with everything and everybody meeting only mortal persons and things. Small wonder we have problems with insatiability, daydreams, loneliness, and restlessness! We are Grand Canyons without a bottom. Nothing, short of union with all that is, can ever fill in that void. To be tormented by restlessness is to be human.
But in accepting, truly, that humanity we become a bit more easeful in our restlessness. Why? Because, as Rahner puts it, in this life there is no finished symphony, everything comes with an undertow of restlessness and inadequacy. This is true of everyone. As Henri Nouwen says: “Here in this world there is no such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy.” Peace and restfulness can come to us only when we accept that fact because it is only then that we will stop demanding that life – our spouses, our families, our friends, our jobs, our vocations and vacations – give us something that they cannot give, namely, the finished symphony, clear-cut pure joy, complete consummation.