We can see our longings as a bittersweet gift if we can look up from the tangled web of our own desires and see that they point past us, past the other person, to something more infinite.
While pondering this article, I called a friend to pick her brain about crushes. She was asking me constructive questions, helping me to flesh out my idea, when she asked me this question:
"Do crushes happen more often during Lent?"
Suddenly I realized that her questions were not entirely rooted in altruism. I sensed that she — like so many others I've spoken to — was struggling against the sticky, web-like threads of a crush.
"Are you caught in a crush?" I said.
"Yeah," she whispered.
"What?" I said. "I can't hear you."
"I have to whisper," she replied. "I don't want my husband to hear."
My mind began to race through all of the men at her church, all of the men she'd ever mentioned, trying to pin-point Mr. Temptation.
"Who is it?" I said.
"Just let me get into the closet and I'll tell you," she said, the door creaking closed behind her. "It was the guy who installed my stove," she said.
I burst out laughing. "I'm sorry," I said. "You just reminded me how ridiculous crushes can be."
"Well maybe it is ridiculous, but on Friday and Saturday I couldn't stop eating. I couldn't figure it out. Suddenly, I realized that I was going to miss having him around," she said.
"But what was it about him?" I asked.
"Oh," she said. "He fixes things. He's part of my fantasy of having a perfect home."
The crush web is woven from the strands of fantasy — when the fantasy fades you are left with just one more fallen human being. "At the end of the crush you have to face up to reality," a friend tells me. "And that is when you really get crushed."
But reality might also be our greatest ally when we're struggling this way. If we can recognize that our weaknesses are simply part of the larger package of being human, we might be better able to cope with them.
Sometimes when we have unsaintly thoughts, we're tempted to berate ourselves, to say things like, "How can I possibly be having such a thought. I'm a horrible, wicked, person — more worm than human, in fact!" These thoughts don't liberate. The don't heal. They stink. They keep us in a small, stuck, place, because they're not about God, they're about us.
Even well-intended thoughts, like, "I will pray harder every time one of these thoughts comes into my mind," can actually dare more thoughts to come (which may — in our more honest moments — be just what we were hoping would happen).
When I was at seminary my mentor challenged me to become more realistic with myself. He always used to say, "Don't be so surprised when you have a sinful thought, thinking something like 'How could I possibly be thinking this?'"
He encouraged me to come to terms with the barebones of my existence — I am, after all, a sinful woman married to a sinful man. There's nothing especially wormy about that, although I do well to keep my feet planted firmly in the soil of reality — always grappling with my real weaknesses. They don't need to define us, but when we know what they are can begin to work through them.
As we become more realistic about ourselves, our reactions can become less extreme. Instead of dwelling (or obsessing) on our thoughts, we can just accept that they will come and we can let them go as freely and frequently as they do. They can be like waves, washing over us and then moving back out to sea.
And there is the other side of longing — for whatever reason, it just happens. We long for the company and attention of certain people for no clear reason. This longing might have a physical dimension, but the physical element (if present) is only part of the whole experience.
"Some people come into our lives and have a gift to give us by arousing intense longings," wrote Gail Godwin in Father Melancholy's Daughter. "Often they are not all they could be, in themselves. But some intensity in us exactly matches some intensity in them, some essentialness in us meets a similar essentialness in them.... Whatever the outcome of these feelings, mightn't they suggest the possibility of a union far better than anything we have so far known?"
When I first came across this quote, it was as though a window had been opened in a room that had been too stuffy for too long. I realized that the phenomenon of feeling a connection with another person is just part of life. I suspect it could happen to one person multiple times during the course of a life, because we are created for intimacy. In this life, the most intimate bond is marriage, but in the next world we are not given in marriage. It is impossible to guess how we will know each other in the world to come, but we do know that the aching and separation we experience down here will cease. Only then we will understand what love is.
Perhaps part of what we call "infatuation" is the experience of seeing, for one moment, the real person before us, in all their God-given glory and fragility. People's faces, especially, can break our hearts. "There is nothing so astonishing as a human face," wrote Marilyn Robinson in Gilead. "Because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it."
Loneliness and longing are often tied together. Many of us long for people with which we can't (for whatever reason) have the level of closeness we might crave. Still, we can still see our longings as a bittersweet gift if we can look up from the tangled web of our own desires and see that they point past us, past the other person, to something more infinite.
These experiences hint at the type of closeness we hope for in the world to come, where we will be known, even as we are fully known, as we experience an intimacy with God and all redeemed creatures that we can only faintly imagine now. The aches we experience remind us that we still live here, in our shadowy bodies and broken world. But our longings can also remind us that we are moving toward something more.
On the most fundamental level, our aches point homeward. As Frederick Buechner wrote, "Beneath the longing to possess and to be possessed by the beauty of another sexually — to know, in the Biblical idiom — there lies a longing, closer to the heart of the matter still, which is the longing to be at last where we finally belong.... When I think of all the beautiful ones whom I have seen for maybe no more than a passing moment and have helplessly, overwhelmingly desired, I wonder if at the innermost heart of my desiring, there wasn't, of all things, homesickness."
Sometimes we have to dig deep to understand what we're really longing for. Often the things we think we want wouldn't actually satisfy us if we could have them. Our deepest desire, buried under and running through all the others — is for union with God and all redeemed creatures. That desire comes from the One who planted it in us, wounding us that way so that we can follow our aches home.
Copyright 2006 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.