In his novel, Clowns of God, Morris West suggests that there are deep reasons why we are so incurably restless: “The fact is that we live only in communion – not only with our present, but with the past and future as well. We are haunted by a whole poetry of living, by lullabies half-remembered and sounds of train whistles in the night and the scent of lavender in a summer garden. We are haunted by grief, too, and fear, and images of childhood terror and the macabre dissolution of age.”
Living, at least living with a certain restfulness and peace of soul, is not as simple as we think. We shouldn’t be so surprised at our perpetual disquiet and pathological restlessness for we are haunted, as West puts it, by a whole poetry of living that doesn’t allow us to be easily inside the present moment. Too many things that have nothing to do with the present moment constantly invade our consciousness. We are, in the words of Toni Morrison, “soul-chained” to things beyond us. Our hearts sense things, remember things, and connect to things in ways that we do not necessarily want and these half-remembered, half-thought, and half-felt feelings forever keep us from being comfortably inside our own skins. They bring the past and future into our present and they chain our hearts to worlds beyond us.
We feel this most clearly and painfully whenever we suffer a heartache or an obsession for someone we love but can’t have. Whenever that happens, as we know, the ache in our hearts makes for a heaviness, an emptiness, and a restlessness that robs us of virtually all of the joy we might experience at a given moment. There are so many times when we have every practical reason to be happy and content, but, because of a heartache, simply cannot give ourselves over to the moment or be content inside of its simple joys. Our heartache, coming from somewhere beyond, colors everything with its restlessness.
And it isn’t just romantic heartaches that do that to us. We suffer through obsessions of all kinds. Memories, regrets, hurts, intuitions, nostalgia, and daydreams of all sorts, are forever impaling themselves inside of us and leaving us deeply restless. Karl Jung once said that energy isn’t always friendly. Whenever we have a heartache, a regret, or an obsession that spoils our day and leaves us too restless to sleep at night we experience what he meant.
This is both good and bad: Some of the things we are chained to produce pain and restlessness in ways that rob us of sunshine, freedom, and sleep. Often, when we are restless, the thoughts and feelings that have invaded us are unwanted. We wish we could be free of them in order to enjoy our lives, without these thoughts and feelings roaming around inside of us like ghosts inside a haunted house. But, painful as this can be, we really wouldn’t want the opposite.
If we could ever be content simply with the pleasures contained in a given moment, like a contented animal munching grass in the sun, we would, by that same token, reduce ourselves from human to animal. What makes our souls different from the souls of animals is precisely the fact that our souls are infinite in their depth, infinite in their yearnings, and therefore infinite too in the realities to which they are chained. Our restlessness is, in fact, a sign of our humanity.
Sometimes of course this wears us down and we get to so weary and tired that we want only to numb ourselves against those things that over-stimulate our souls from beyond. This numbing ourselves to depth can be healthy for a while, as a convalescent space, but in the end we need to be haunted from beyond. The ghosts that haunt us bring with them depth, spirit, and meaning.
Morris West tells us that we are always haunted by things beyond us, but he adds: “I am sure that it is in this domain of our daily dreaming that the Holy Spirit establishes his own communion with us. This is how the gift is given which we call grace: the sudden illumination, the sharp regret that leads to penitence or forgiveness, the opening of the heart to the risk of love.”
What haunts us from beyond is also what drives us beyond simple, animal, satisfaction and opens us to other worlds.
In her novel, Love, Nobel-prize winning novelist, Toni Morrison describes a young boy who is falling rather hopelessly in love with a woman who is incapable of reciprocating that love. This, she suggests, will surely lead to heartbreak and ruin: “God help the boy,” she laments, “if he got soul-chained to a woman he couldn’t trust.”
We all know the pain and heartbreak of that! But the reverse is probably worse: God help any of us if we become so dulled, calloused, or self-protective that we are no longer soul-chained to worlds beyond us.”