Recently I had dinner with a young man and woman who are close friends of mine. They had been married for less than two years and were expecting their first child. Both had relatively good jobs; he in communications, she in teaching.
Their relationship to each other, while perhaps past that highly charged passion of first fervor, was, by every appearance, good, respectful, loving and easeful. By every practical standard, they should have been happy, in a good season of their lives.
But that was not the case. Individually, and as a couple, they were quite restless and frustrated, without being able to pinpoint precisely why. They talked about it in this way:
“It’s not that we are unhappy, it’s just that our lives seem too small for us. We want to do something more significant than what we are doing, to somehow leave a mark in this world. The city we live in, our jobs, our circle of friends, even our relationship to each other and our involvement with the church, somehow doesn’t seem enough.”
“It’s all too ordinary, too domestic, too insignificant. Life seems so big and we seem so small! Maybe having this baby will change things—bringing a new person into this world is pretty significant and very irrevocable.”
“At least that will be one timeless thing that we did. But… maybe it will make us even more restless because now we will be tied down in ways that we can no longer leave or change.”
I found it difficult to offer much to them by way of advice. I sensed their restlessness; indeed, I often feel just that kind of dis-ease within my own life. My life is going on, full of many things, and, too often, I am absent from those things, too restless to receive the spirit of my own life.
Rich life, life-giving love, true community and God are present… but I, like the young couple I just talked about, am absent. Perhaps it sounds strange to suggest that we can be absent from our own lives, but in fact it is rare that we are present to what’s actually there and taking place within our lives.
St. Augustine, in a famous prayer after his conversion, expresses this well: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved! You were within me, but I was outside and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.” (Confessions, Book 7).
”You were within me, but I was outside.” Few phrases more accurately describe how we relate to God, life, love and community than does that line from Augustine. It’s why my friends could have so rich a life and yet be so deeply restless; it’s why we all generally look everywhere else rather than to our own actual lives for love and delight; and it’s why we are perennially so deeply restless.
This restlessness cannot be stilled by a journey outward. It’s inward that we need to go. Inside of our own actual lives, beyond our restless yearnings and fantasies, God, love, community, meaning, timeless significance and everything else that we search for, are already there.
We become bigger than our seemingly too small lives not by finding and doing something extraordinary and timeless—great achievements, world fame, leaving a mark in history, being known by and connected to more and more people—but in being present to what’s timeless and extraordinary within our ordinary lives.
I have a series of axioms that I try to meditate on regularly to keep myself aware of how, perennially, what I am yearning for is inside of me but I am outside. Allow me to share them with you:
- Life is what happens to you while you are planning your life.
- I always resented interruptions to my work until I realized that those interruptions were my real work.
- Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the person who is actually in my life while I am plotting how to be in somebody else’s life.
- Love is what you are experiencing while you are futilely searching for it beyond your own circles—and taking the circles around you for granted.
- Joy is what catches you by surprise, blindside, from a source that is quite other than where you are pursuing it.
The Prayer of St. Francis captures the same thing—and it’s that kind of prayer we need most when our restless yearning overwhelms us and our lives feel too small for us.