“Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such a thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness. … But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.”
Henri Nouwen wrote that and the older we get the more we experience its truth. In this life, there’s no such a thing as a “clear-cut pure” joy. But that doesn’t make our lives less-worth living, it simply changes our perspective. Karl Rahner said a similar thing: “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
What this means is that we aren’t restful creatures who occasionally get restless, fulfilled people who occasionally are dissatisfied, serene people who occasionally experience disquiet. Rather we are restless people who occasionally find rest, dissatisfied people who occasionally find fulfilment, and disquieted people who occasionally find serenity. We don’t naturally default into rest, satisfaction, and quiet, but into their opposite.
We too easily assume that we must be doing something wrong to trigger all this restlessness and disquiet. Sometimes that’s the case, but our deepest emotional aches and pains have their real root in what’s best in us rather than in what’s worst in us. Ultimately, our profoundest dissatisfactions take their root in what’s deepest inside us, the image and likeness of God.
As Christians, we believe that we bear the image and likeness of God inside of us and that this is our deepest reality. We are made in God’s image. However we tend to picture this in a naive, romantic, and pious way. We imagine that somewhere inside us there is a beautiful icon of God stamped into our souls. That may well be, but God, as scripture assures us, is more than an icon. God is fire – wild, infinite, ineffable, non-containable.
If that same fire is inside us, and it is, then there are divine appetites inside of us too, appetites that are not ever satiable in this life. There’s a divine restlessness written right in our DNA.
And that divine fire is at the root of most of what is problematic in our lives: grandiosity, jealousy, rage, egotism, our incapacity to be satisfied, our constant longing for more, our restless ambitions, our pathological complexities, our greed, and our propensity for addiction. It’s difficult to live in this world and be satisfied, humble, chaste, and not jealous of others. It’s difficult too to have to share this world with six billion others who are just as special as we are. Something in our very make-up wants always to stand out, to be recognized as unique, to own the world, and to be acknowledged as godly. No wonder there are so many jealousies and wars on this planet.
But this divine fire is also the root of all that’s good in us. When we have divine fire inside of us, it’s also impossible to be satisfied with mediocrity, with sin, with lack of meaning, with only this world, with what’s second best, and with anything less than a full surrender in love to all that’s good – others, the world, God. When we’re in the image of God it’s impossible not to go through life and be relentlessly driven to search for love and to search for God.
Being in the image of God is our greatest blessing and our greatest struggle. Because of it, we search for meaning, give our lives for each other, create magnificent works of art, and bow in worship to God. But because of it we also spend too many sleepless nights, are often furiously jealous of each other, and too often see others as rivals, give in to rage, and murder each other. It’s not a simple thing to carry infinity in a finite body and a finite world.
St. Augustine summarized it all in one line: “You have made us for yourself Lord and our hearts are restless until the rest in you.” Given the way we’re made, it’s hard to live in this world and settle for second-best – and, in that, lie the roots for both greatness and self-destruction.